Yesterday, the European Union announced a new round of antitrust charges against Google, this time pointing the finger at the company’s advertising service, some of the most important tech in Google’s moneymaking arsenal. That’s on top of the EU’s original charges against Google’s search engine, and separates charges laid down early this year related to Google’s Android mobile operating system. Whatever role Microsoft played in the past, the situation has evolved into something very different. This is Europe versus Google.
And for Google, the ultimate outcome does not look bright. A new EU competition chief is overseeing this barrage of cases, as European corporate giants line up against the Silicon Valley behemoth. Meanwhile, as Google relies more on artificial intelligence to automate a range of tasks that run its services behind the scenes, it could face a whole new round of conflict with Europe. In the end, Google in Europe could wind up as a very different thing than Google at home.
Deep and Wide
The European complaints against Google run deep and wide. Originally, Microsoft and others, including a tiny British company called Foundem, complained that Google was favoring its own services, such as Google Maps and Google Product Search, on its Internet search engine, which controls roughly 90 percent of its market on the continent. Foundem is still fighting the case (obliquely criticizing Microsoft in a blog post after the software giant summarily left it behind). This fight concerns the way Google builds its algorithms behind the scenes, and if Google loses, it could not result in enormous fines, but also affect how Google is able to promote itself in Europe.
Google’s antitrust problems are only getting worse.
The newer cases stretch into very different territory. Critics complain that the company forces smartphone makers to favor its services when building phones with Android, and they allege Google requires online outfits to show a certain percentage of Google ads when using its search engine on their websites.
Google and the EU have now argued over these cases for years. But whatever the strengths and weaknesses of the various arguments, the political climate in the EU over that time has decidedly shifted against Google and other big US Internet companies. European officials deny they’re showing an anti-American bias. But Google now faces enormous amounts of ill-will in the EU, and not only from tiny players like Foundem. Giant publishing houses and retailers, which have enormous clout in Europe, feel the Google search engine has stolen their mojo, and these are the companies tied up in the latest round of complaints. Years of resentment have come to a head.
At the same time, as its battles with Europe drag on, Google continues to evolve at its typically rapid clip, while EU regulations continue to evolve at their typically glacial pace. The result is that it’s increasingly hard to resolve conflict—or, indeed, avoid it in the first place. This is true not only with antitrust, but with online privacy, an area where attitudes are much less forgiving in the EU than in the US.
Google grappling with Europe’s “right to be forgotten,” which allows EU citizens to demand that Google remove links to information about themselves they consider embarrassing or otherwise objectionable. Now, it’s potentially facing a new challenge as it weaves deep neural networks into the fabric of its services.
Google’s EU fight could lead to a very different Google. Or a different Facebook or Amazon.
These systems rely on processing vast amounts of data to teach themselves how to perform certain tasks, like delivering more relevant search results. Some critics argue that because Google has access to a disproportionate amount of online data, its neural nets maybe provide the company with an insurmountable competitive advantage. “A would-be entrant hoping to challenge Google is, goes the argument, at a disadvantage because of its lack of data,” says Greg Taylor, an antitrust expert at Oxford. “This gives Google some breathing room to behave anti-competitively.”
But Europe’s stricter privacy regime could also curtail Google’s access to much of that data. The EU recently unveiled new privacy regulations that could bar the company from using neural nets that train on certain personal data. What’s more, the regulations give individuals the right to ask Google how it made specific decisions related to their personal info, and when neural are a work, that’s not something that Google can easily do. A neural net is a bit like a black box, even to its creators. The question is whether the fundamental algorithms running Google’s services will need to work differently in one place as opposed to others.
Here and There
The flip side, Taylor says, is that the new privacy regulations could also end up helping Google when it comes to fighting antitrust complaints. The regulations may allow individuals to more easily move their personal data from one company’s service to another, and if that’s the case, Google would have an easier time showing that it’s not behaving in an anti-competitive way. It wouldn’t have a monopoly on data.
Once this was Google versus Microsoft. Now it’s Google versus Europe.
But the situation is so complex—and so far reaching—the tide could ultimate shift against Google. It could lead to a very different Google in the EU than in the US. Or a different Facebook or Amazon. And that’s not as ridiculous as it sounds. Why did Microsoft drop its fight against Google? It could be because Microsoft is a now a company that looks like Google. It too is moving towards neural networks. It too is relying more and more on data. And it may have realized that it needed to be on the other site of the battle, that it’s future is at risk, that it too may be forced to be something it doesn’t want to be.
One of the strengths of the Internet is that a single service can potentially reach anywhere in the world. But that doesn’t always happen in practice. Due to government control, the Internet in China looks very different. If an outside service want in, they must play by a very different set of rules. The EU isn’t China. But it too is developing a very different set of rules. Once, this was Google versus Microsoft. But now it’s Google versus Europe all the way down.