Google is in trouble in Europe again. The search engine giant, beloved by billions around the world, can’t seem to keep the EU happy. Last week, the European Commission, the executive branch of the EU, announced that it has filed a formal antitrust complaint against Google over its Android OS.
Why are they going after Android?
Android is open source – anyone can not only include Android in their own products but create custom versions of it, as well. However, many of Android’s flagship apps, including Google Play store, Google Maps, and Gmail are proprietary. So one would have to get Google’s permission to include Google’s proprietary apps in their products. And getting permission to include those apps means playing by Google’s rules. That’s where the EU sees a problem.
According to the complaint, Google requires companies that want to bundle Google’s apps with their products to make Google Search the default search engine. They’re allegedly even offered financial incentives to not include any other search engines. They must also pre-install Google’s Chrome browser and are prohibited from using alternate versions of Android created outside of Google.
If European officials decide to push this further, Google may be forced to release carriers and manufacturers from these contracts and allow them to set other search engines and browsers as the defaults on their devices. And that could result in a big blow to Google’s revenue, since the company makes money from advertising through its search engine and other apps, not by selling Android itself.
The bright side for Google is that consumers love it. And YouTube has become a steady moneymaker for the company on mobile. Also, most of us would still use Google, even if given a choice.
Right to be Forgotten
In 2014, a ruling from Europe’s highest court gave people broad rights to make search engines remove search results about themselves, including links to news articles and other information. People with connections to Europe could file requests with Google to have certain links removed from search results.
In response, Google took said search results out of its European versions – visitors to google.fr or google.de wouldn’t see the banned results, but they were still present on google.com. However, Europeans could still navigate to the company’s non-European versions. In March, French regulators fined the company because they didn’t think these steps are enough.
When Europeans type “google.com” into their browsers, Google redirects them to their national versions of the service — which, it says, are used by 95 percent of its European users. But there was nothing really stopping those people from visiting google.com.
Google is changing that now, using geo-blocking technology to control what European users can see. Under the new system, Google will not only remove links on, say, google.fr, but it will block users in France from seeing those links on any other Google country site, or google.com itself. Unless they use tools like VPN to disguise their locations, users in those countries will see trimmed search results.
How does this affect me?
If you don’t live in France, you aren’t completely immune to the possible ramifications this will have. French regulators are now pushing Google to restrict search results all over the world to comply with their “right to be forgotten” privacy laws. You see, in Europe, the right to privacy is pretty much at par with freedom of expression.
That’s a problem for Google, whose business model is built on search. But it may be an even bigger problem for Internet users. If a European government can control what people all over the world get to see on the Internet, what’s stopping other countries from doing the same?
Google’s geo-blocking seems like logical solution — avoiding global deletion, while letting a country enforce laws within its borders. But it is a big step away from the Internet’s promise of universally accessible information.
Breaking up important parts of the web raises barriers to entry for anyone looking to set up online, from bloggers to NGOs to businesses. Unlike Google, smaller online services might not agree to build custom French versions. It is easier and cheaper to block French users entirely. That means new entrants miss out on the French market, French Internet users miss out on new content and technologies from abroad, and everyone everywhere misses out on the awesomeness of global Internet. This also lends legitimacy to countries like China, Turkey and Iran that have long controlled what information their citizens can view online.
News outlets are particularly vulnerable to geo-blocking. Journalists rely on global networks to investigate and report on international stories (think Panama Papers). They are also usually the first targets when governments seek to control the flow of information to their citizens. However the EU provides protection under privacy law for journalistic activities, so the news media is not directly in the cross hairs of the “right to be forgotten.”
Privacy is super important, and we do need to have some standards to protect our information online. But when it comes to establishing laws that govern the Internet, things need to be handled with more subtlety. These developments should not be driven only by privacy regulators. There needs to be an international body in place that handles such matters – consisting of governments, trade ministries, telecom regulators and advocates of free expression.
The internet is a global source of information and its governance should not be left to one nation or group of nations. Technology does not discriminate – the internet is fair and should remain open to all. What are your thoughts on this matter? Let us know in the comments.