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Why Google should leave Europe

The company is under relentless attack by European authorities who won't stop until they do real damage

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Robert Scoble (CC BY 2.0)

Spanish lawmakers did something dumb this week. They passed a new law that forces Google to pay news publishers a fee for sending valuable, monetizable content from Google News to their sites.

Lobbied by the Spanish Newspaper Publishers' Association (AEDE), the government determined that the summaries and thumbnail photos that accompany links in Google News constitute an infringement of copyright. Therefore, they argued, Google should pay the copyright holders for it.

Because Google doesn't place advertising on Google News sites, the so-called "Google Tax" would require Google to lose money for the privilege of sending valuable traffic to news sites.

So Google will do the inevitable and rational thing: It'll close Spain's version of Google News.

(The law goes into effect in January, but Google will close the news site on Tuesday.)

After Google's announcement, the AEDE freaked out and called for the government to stop Google News from being closed, saying: "AEDE requires the intervention of Spanish and community authorities, and competition authorities, to effectively protect the rights of citizens and companies."

Note that they're not requesting a removal of the law; they're asking the government to force Google News to stay open and also pay the Google Tax.

The Spanish episode is part of a larger trend among regulators and politicians in Europe to strongly reduce the influence of U.S. Internet companies in general -- and to damage Google in particular.

Remembering the right to be forgotten

This year, Europe got serious about a privacy concept called the right to be forgotten. In principle, the idea is a good one, and it solves a problem that can arise with search engines.

The idea is that search engine results tend to overemphasize scandalous, negative, dramatic or criminal news about a person, and underemphasize the rest of their lives. The result is that a person can be stigmatized by what comes up in search results, even if those links point to information that's no longer valid, true or representative of someone's current situation.

The rule was established by a court case that originated in Spain between Google and Mario Costeja González. Long story short, the man's debt from many years ago continued to stigmatize him as a debtor. He wanted Google to remove the links to the old information about his long-gone financial woes. Google said no. But the Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice said yes.

As a result, search engines were then required to offer a process for citizens to petition them to have links removed from search results when their names are used for the search query. The EU later banned Google from notifying affected websites. First they censored Google Search, then they censored Google, the company -- both clear infringements of free speech.

The right to be forgotten is a weird brand of censorship. It illegalizes links to legal content.

A search engine is not supposed to be an accurate reflection of "the truth." It's supposed to be an accurate reflection of what's on the Internet. Europe's right to be forgotten makes it deliberately less accurate.

Google said more than 174,000 people have already petitioned for the removal of more than 600,000 search results, and it has culled more than a quarter million of them.

That European regulators wanted to damage Google Search in Europe through censorship is bad enough. But now they're aiming for something truly dangerous.

Regulators agreed last month on a new set of guidelines that would require Google to apply the right-to-be-forgotten censorship worldwide.

That would be the first time in history a European government would impose censorship on a company in the United States.

This would obviously set a precedent whereby every censoring government will demand equal treatment. Sliding down this slippery slope, Google would censor the that you and I use according to the censorhip of China, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Syria, Tunisia and Vietnam. Links to the Dalai Lama or historical events like Tiananmen Square would be erased. Pictures of women with their hair un-covered would be banned. And so on.

Searching for an excuse to damage Google

European regulators have been investigating and harassing Google for four years over antitrust issues. The company is facing an absurdly large fine of $6 billion if found guilty of the accusations that it favored its own services in search results over those from European competitors. (The claim was studied and rejected by U.S. authorities.)

Europe is also considering a formal investigation into Android for antitrust issues, based on the idea that Android may be discriminating against apps not made by Google. In late November, the European Parliament passed a nonbinding resolution to break up Google into multiple companies. And Google is constantly harassed and penalized in Germany, France, Spain and elsewhere in Europe over numerous tax, privacy and other issues.

Meanwhile, Google is more popular among the European public than any other region in the world. The company has higher than 90% market share in Europe simply because users there prefer it over alternatives. (The company has less than 68% market share in the U.S.)

So European corporations and the politicians they lobby are out to destroy Google even as the European public loves Google.

To summarize, you have government obsessively and shamelessly pushing unfair protectionism under the guise of various righteous bureaucratic causes and hammering away with censorship, fines, threats, bans and constant harassment.

Sound familiar?

It should. This is the situation Google found itself in China five years ago.

China redux?

Back then, the Chinese government kept pressuring Google to censor search results to make them inaccurate. The Chinese Communist Party demanded that Google change the results that would come up from searches for hot-button political topics like the Dalai Lama, Tiananmen Square, the Falun Gong and many others.

Beijing also damaged Google by hacking Gmail to steal information about human rights activists -- essentially demonstrating to users that Google's "product" was flawed because it wasn't secure.

And finally, the Chinese government engaged in the "theft of intellectual property from Google," widely believed to be the most secret of Google's secret sauce -- source code to some of its search algorithms.

What China did to Google is the Chinese way of damaging a foreign company so Chinese firms don't have to compete.

What Europe is doing to Google now is the European way of damaging a foreign company so European firms don't have to compete. European bureaucrats, lawmakers and politicians will keep saddling Google with ridiculous restrictions -- while doing all they can to damage the company's reputation among the Google-loving European public.

And just as Google pulled out of China, it should exit Europe and serve its European users from outside the continent.

The truth is that the Chinese pullout harmed Google economically. But pulling out of Europe would probably benefit Google in the long run.

That's because Europe doesn't have anything like a Great Firewall of China, nor is there anything like Baidu, the "Chinese Google." Global sites are available to Europeans and they'll continue to prefer and use Google.

What Google should do is simply encourage Europeans to use, then use location information to serve up local content.

If Brussels bans European companies from advertising on Google, I'm sure the rest of the world would love to buy those ads and sell things to European consumers.

Either way, it's clear that European politicians are bent on destroying Google. And it's also clear that they're going to continue to harass and slander and fine and censor the company until they succeed.

That's why it would be better for Google to leave Europe, just as it did China. And for the same reason.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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