Category Archives: Google

At Home and Across the Atlantic, Google’s Legal Woes Grow

English: Google Logo officially released on Ma...

Google Logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Google is facing a tough road ahead, legally-speaking, as both US and European organizations line up to question the company’s practices. 

Both challenges revolve around antitrust charges; not a new allegation for Google, but certainly coming at the dominant search engine with more teeth this time around. The American case focuses more on media accusations that a non-investigation by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which dates back to 2012, requires further scrutiny.

Across the Atlantic, Google faces increased criticism within the European Union (EU), with whom its relationship has always been tense at best.

The accusations in this case come from competitors based in Europe, who allege that their American rival uses its de facto monopoly on the search market to steer potential customers to its own products and web properties. When those properties are presented at the top of the search results by a company that dominates the European market to the tune of more than 90 percent, and competitors pushed down to positions that are rarely viewed, it raises questions as to the true neutrality of those results.

 

This is where the EU comes in, overseeing a case that could potentially cost Google some $66 billion if authorities rule against the company and opt to fine it the full 10 percent of profits that European rules allow. Even for one of the most cash-rich brands in the world, that’s an amount that will do some significant damage.

If it goes all the way the case will mark a new low for Google in Europe, after many years of trading blows with the area’s regulators at both national or regional level.

Earlier this year we reported on why Google chose to pull its news services in Spain, following a disagreement with the government and certain media outlets in the country over how it scrapes their sites for news content. Suspiciously, only a couple of months later, the country’s attempt to block prominent piracy site The Pirate Bay was scuppered in part by a Google-related workaround. Although there was support for Google from some sections of the European media, the general reputation of the company is consistently under fire in the region, whether over its tax avoidance in the United Kingdom or privacy concerns in Germany.

The news issue, for example, is predated by a wider tug of war with the EU over the company’s patchy approach to user privacy, and the controversial “Right to be Forgotten” law that came into effect in Europe last year. Some believe Google’s actions in Spain amount to heavy-handed tactics, intended to communicate Mountain View’s displeasure with increasingly tight regulation of its activity. When a company holds all the cards in a marketplace as large as the EU, though, it’s fair to assume that it should be held to a high standard.

However, as we see in the U.S. and with the dropped FTC investigation, Google is used to getting what it wants and playing by its own rules.

As in many cases where it is asked to do its fair share to curb illicit and fraudulent activity, Google complained about the burden of responsibility and trotted out some well-worn arguments about unnecessary regulations stifling innovation. Now those arguments ring rather hollow, given the widespread antitrust accusations leveled against the company at home and abroad.

In Europe, Google’s greedy appetite to hold on to every last percentage point of market dominance may prove to be its undoing. Competition is a close companion to innovation, so stifling the former is really little different to hindering the latter, which Google so often accuses others of doing. For that reason, privacy and intellectual property advocates in the Unites States will be watching the European example closely as this case unfolds.

 

Fleeing Authorities, Piracy’s Latest Poster Child Bounces Around the World

You may remember Popcorn Time, the initially innocent-looking app that gained attention (then notoriety) last year when the headlines labeled it “Netflix for Pirates.”

Although that early version proved short-lived thanks to prompt action from rights holders, the site morphed into several other unreliable incarnations in the months that followed, sparking concerns about malicious code and a bizarre turf war between different groups of developers.

After a winter break from the media spotlight, aside from a frank admission from Netflix itself that such piracy sites provide significant competition to its paid service,  Popcorn Time appears to be resurfacing in a traditional manner: finding new countries from which to operate, at least until the nearest available authorities catch up with its operators.

Currently that means Europe, specifically Sweden, which is something of an odd choice given the recent spate of raids on piracy server locations in that country. It’s also strange as the service has been removed on another occasion by EURid, the European Registry of Internet Domain Names, which should really send Popcorn Time’s operators running for further flung lands than Scandinavia.

If it followed the path of The Pirate Bay, for example, there would be stops at domain registrars in exotic locations like the Caribbean and South America. That course eventually led to the site being shut down anyway and its owners serving jail time, so perhaps nowhere in the world can truly be labeled a “safe harbor.” That, at least, is something for which rights holders can be grateful.

Popcorn Time Google results

For anyone who can recall the name of the service, Google makes it easy to put pirates back in business.

As usual, Google has a role to play in curbing this piracy. Unfortunately, and also as usual, it seems that the search giant will have to be dragged kicking and screaming to act against a site that flagrantly infringes the copyright of creators big and small.

As the search results to the right show, Google currently puts Popcorn Time at the very top of its search results, helping curious viewers to hurdle one of the barriers to entry. With the more common dot com domain removed, would-be pirates at least have to find a working address for the site before they can begin ripping off titles. Google solves that problem all too easily, and rumors that the app will also be available for download through the official Google Play store will only make the company look worse.

Somewhat amusingly, in that same Wired interview with the anonymous operator of Popcorn Time’s latest incarnation, a different parallel is drawn with the world’s largest search engine. The source, identified only by the name of the site’s mascot, makes the direct comparison between Google and his own service, saying:

“We’re like Google, scraping for new content all over the internet.”

–‘Pochoclin’ of Popcorn Time

While the analogy has some technical basis, it would be harsh to lump Google into the same piracy bag as Popcorn Time, which positions itself to directly undercut legitimate streaming services. Google certainly has its fair share of work – and then some – to do in the fight against piracy, but its business is search advertising, not actively searching for and promoting pirated content.

But even with that indirect distinction, the fact that Google so frequently presents piracy sites, and by doing so legitimizes them, when users perform a search is enough to put the company on the wrong side of the fight. Between YouTube, Android, and its eponymous search engine, it could be argued that Google does as much to facilitate piracy as it does to curb it.

However much running around the world authorities have to do to pursue and prohibit the likes of Popcorn Time, it’s important to remember we also have some major intellectual property battles to fight right here on home soil.

 

Europe Hammers Away at Google

The disconnect between Google and European privacy authorities shows little sign of reaching a conclusion any time soon. Google’s stepped up lobbying efforts are only backfiring, according to analysis in Venture Beat.

European privacy regulators once again rebuked Google last week for its stepped up efforts to tie data gathering initiatives across its portfolio of platforms. The specific order last week, was issued by German authorities who informed Google that it was in violation of German law.

Then there’s the securities issue that has been bedeviling Google for several years. Google and the European Commission were on the verge of reaching a settlement to an ongoing EC antitrust violation when officials asked Google to make more changes to the terms.

The ongoing nature of the disputes is illustrative of two issues. The first is differences in expectations about privacy in Europe and the United States. The U.S. public has become accepting or perhaps resigned to the fact that privacy is going the way of the dinosaur, or being redefined, depending on your take on it. Europeans are less willing to let go, or at least that’s the view of proactive European regulators.

The second issue is more speculative. It is whether the EC resents the fact that it is a U.S. company that’s moving in on privacy. That’s a double whammy that might be just a bit too much to take for some in the EC. From a U.S. perspective it rings of anti-competitiveness. But I can understand an ambivalence to give up privacy in the name of Google profits. What’s perhaps missing is an understanding of what might be possibly gained by Google’s data grab.