The European Union (EU) is a political partnership between 28 European countries linked together legally through signed treaties by each of the members. The main goal of the organization is to foster economic cooperation between the countries although their purpose has morphed into a United Nations-style entity that is focused on a diverse range of social issues; living standards, creating a national currency (euro), environmental issues, public health, privacy, human rights, and other concerns of justice. As a result of EU’s formation, the citizens of the 28 European countries have benefited from the natural mobility of travel and inter-country-commerce, which has essentially created a single or internal market.
One of the goals of the EU is to keep the internet dynamic, competitive and secure. Since the internet is continually evolving, changing the way people and firms do business, mainly through the convergence of internet transmissions in general, the market presence of individual companies is critical where competition is concerned; this is true not only from a capital perspective but also because of potential censorship concerns. As it stands, Google has about 90 percent of the European market cornered. This statistic has not escaped the attention of the EU membership countries- in some part, due to the complaints registered by Google competitors, Yahoo and Microsoft (Microsoft’s claims about unfair market competition are a joke considering their past practices under the leadership of Bill Gates- but jokes aside, the EU is concerned about the substance of the market realities). The European Parliament passed a resolution that calls on the EU to consider a break-up of Google last year; the move is considered by some to be mostly symbolic since only the EU potentially has the potential power to implement a dismantling of Google’s virtual monopoly in Europe through their own European “Court of Justice” system. One question apart from a purely economic perspective, is how far will the EU go towards limiting the content of search engines based upon privacy concerns.
Europeans are historically concerned about privacy. France firmly believes that their citizens “must be safeguarded from excessive public curiosity, so as to avoid infringing upon the individual’s right to privacy” where depictions and writings are concerned- the French legal system is among the most protective that exists where privacy is concerned. The rights are spelled out in the country’s civil code although criminal prosecutions are common.
In 2010, a Spanish citizen sought to remove negative data pertaining to him that appeared in certain search engines, including those of Google. He brought his concern to the Court of European Justice asking whether the 1995 Data Protection Directive, that provided protection for individuals with regard to the processing of personal data and on the free movement of such data, applied to search engines such as Google, and whether an individual has the right to request that his or her personal data be removed from accessibility through such search engines. In other words, did he have a “right to be forgotten.”
In response, the EU Court made a ruling on May 13, 2014, that the 1995 Act did apply to all search engine companies who had a branch or subsidiary in one of the member states which promoted services. The Ruling made it clear that information that is inaccurate, inadequate, irrelevant or excessive is subject to such requests for removal. The Ruling did not make such requests automatic- rather a case-by-case assessment would be needed. Hefty fines can be imposed by the EU.
Google has been removing data from their search engines before the EU Ruling. As of late August 2014, according to a Wikipedia article, Google had received over 30 million deletion requests with many of them based upon privacy issues. It is unknown how many files have actually been deleted, and many of those requests were based upon copyright infringement and defamation claims, however, it seems clear that Google has been proactive on this front.
COMMENT: Although much of the recent attention on Google has pertained to the economic stronghold they have in the market place, and issues of privacy, many European countries are also concerned over the censorship powers Google has; they control absolutely the order in which users receive information back from their submitted queries. It appears that they can shape or heavily influence political elections in the U.S.; some claim that they have attempted to manipulate public opinion by placing positive weight, and greater access, to the opinions of their favorite candidates. Any purveyor of information probably does this; certainly, the New York Times seems to favor liberal politicians, and the Wall Street Journal, conservative contenders. The difference is Google claims to be an unbiased “organic” searcher of information- they claim neutrality. This is a problem of too much power being vested in a central source similar to the Facebook operation where your account can be deleted by the company’s central command and control center for saying certain things they don’t like. Such issues go beyond the concepts of freedom of the press, and whether anyone has a “right” to privacy, or if a company has the power to censor political and social discourse- the issue is one of too much control and power that in the end can likely lead to abuse and corruption. The EU is right to confront these issues and to continue to require companies to adhere to their long-held beliefs about private matters. In this regard, we once again owe our thanks to countries like France who are leading the way in these efforts.
UPDATE: 4/15/15 MORE POTENTIAL PROBLEMS FOR GOOGLE IN EUROPE
The EU has filed a complaint or “statement of objections” against Google for abusing their market advantage to bolster the services of their businesses such as Google Play, You Tube, and Google Shopping. The basic claim is that when unsuspecting consumers attempt to find products on the internet, as they do 3 billion times a day, Google’s vast and unchecked internet presence will first direct the consumers to their products. Google gives the impression that they are being fair but this does not seem to be the case. At any rate, the EU has taken a much firmer approach than Google friendly U.S. regulators have. Google will be expected to respond to the objections in a timely manner. They have denied any improprieties.