It seems that the search engine thriller that we are watching with horror in the Old Continent goes on. Last week the Sting reported on how parliamentarians were planning to “break up with reality in the Google antitrust case”. This week we are counting the votes and the list of “guidelines” to Google and all other search engines that are doing business in Europe.
On Thanksgiving the European Parliament decided to show its teeth to the US giant, Google. With a vote of 384 to 174 and 56 abstentions our good politicians voted in favour of the resolution for “consumer rights in the digital market”. Although the document does not mention the word “Google”, it calls the European Commission to urgently “consider proposals aimed at unbundling search engines from other commercial services”. And this is nothing but the notorious proposed break-up that the Sting touched last week.
It has never happened before that the EU parliament interferes directly with an antitrust case treated by the European Commission. Obviously tremendous lobby pressure by European publishers and competitors like Microsoft has ‘finally’ paid off. The 90% market share of Google in the European market seems to be more than bothering for some.
Allegedly the US digital company is using its predominant position in the market to promote its own products (Google ads/shop) and does not give a slight chance to Microsoft and smaller companies to play ball. As we have followed closely in this newspaper, the case has been let linger for 4 years by the previous Commissionner, Mr Joaquin Almunia, without any conclusion despite the pressure. Now it is up to the new Commissoner, Mrs Margrethe Vestager, to handle this time bomb that was handed in her hands. As of now she needs to respond to the urge of the European Parliament that ““indexation, evaluation, presentation and ranking by search engines must be unbiased and transparent”.
#Righttobeforgotten the second slap
Moreover, the Parliament’s pledge for the Commission to do what sounds impossible, break two business units of an American 60bn dollars company in two, was not enough. Google turned also the other cheek this week to receive another slap with the publication of the “guidelines” that the search engines need to apply on the “right to be forgotten” cases. In a 90% Google market this is inescapably considered as a second attack against the silicon valley company.
Europe’s Article 29 Working Party composed by European data protection authorities issued 13 criteria to make the job of search engines easier while assessing which link is right to be forgotten and which one is ‘right to be remembered’. The reader of the Sting certainly follows the “right to be forgotten” case, initiated last Spring by a Spanish citizen’s claim to the European Court of Justice to erase some non updated info on his debts listed on Google results.
The matter since then produced international debate on freedom of speech and search engine neutrality and certainly these 13 criteria published have spurred additional criticism around the globe. Till now, in the past six months, Google has received some 174.000 requests for results’ exclusion by persons or companies on more than 600,000 links, while the company has managed to remove 40% of the requested results.
One of the cornerstone added value that these criteria bring to the ECJ’ s decision of last May, is the fact that Google and the peer are now called to extend these 13 criteria to .com domains and not only to local ones like was done in the past months, e.g. .fr (France) or .de (Germany). This means that the EU demands from search engines to apply this #righttobeforgotten paradigm globally. Can anyone grasp the chaotic implications of something like that?
What is more, Europe’s Article 29 Working Party in their document they guide the search engines to spot the “public interest” in every case that appears. Is it the job of search engines to do that? Further, among the 13 “rules” it is very interesting to see that the EU is explicitly against the search engine to show the result for which the user has requested exclusion but not against the media source to show this information. So, the source can still contain this “bad info” that the search engine needs to omit?
Regulation like no other
All in all, it is clear that the anti-Google sentiment is fierce in Brussels and to a certain extent justified. Protecting consumers’ rights and fair competition is understandable. However, this unprecedented direct involvement of the European Parliament in an antitrust case raises some questions. Especially when it is almost synchronized with the “guidelines” issued by this advisory body, branched by the European Commission.
Are we moving towards a strictly regulated search engine market? If it is for the best of the European consumer, let’s do so. However, should search engines be regulated like any other industry? When freedom of speech and internet neutrality is at stake the matter should not be taken for granted. It is not just a matter of how to liberate a market and create turnover from other companies’ growth but it is also about how to make sure that the filtering pattern that is followed here does not grow exponentially and to unknown directions.
That would be the end of a free dynamic Internet and we will need another Tim Berners-Lee to discover another free, dynamic and truly neutral new media network in the near future.