Germany, EU charged with Google-bashing

Tom Barfield
Tom Barfield - [email protected]
Germany, EU charged with Google-bashing
Digital Economy Commissioner Günther Oettinger tried to calm American fears for tech darling Google. Photo: DPA

Germany is at the heart of moves to limit the power of US web companies and their involvement in surveillance as American voices cry foul.


Günther Oettinger, European Commissioner for the Digital Economy, said on Tuesday evening that the EU is not trying to smash Google apart in response to open letters from US politicians.

Although a years-long competition probe into Google's activities in areas like maps and price comparisons as well as hotel and restaurant reviews might end by imposing restrictions on the search giant, these would be "proportionate and targeted," Oettinger said.

And he told economic journalist Roland Tichy that "smashing apart or expropriating" Google was out of the question.

A spokesman for Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager said that she would decide how to proceed in the Google case as soon as she had spoken with businesses that have been most affected by Google's activities.

Those include some of Europe's largest media and internet companies such as German publishing giant Axel Springer.

The Commissioners were responding to pressure from several different directions to clarify the EU's stance.

MEPs in Brussels will vote tomorrow on a resolution calling for the "unbundling" of search engines from other services in a move clearly targeted at Google – a significant statement despite the European Parliament's lack of lawmaking powers.

German and other MEPs from both the conservative European People's Party (EPP) and progressive Socialists and Democrats (S&D) groups are co-sponsoring the resolution, meaning it is likely to pass with flying colours.

That move has prompted US politicians from both the Democratic and Republican parties to write several letters challenging such "proposals that seem to target US technology companies", the Financial Times reported.

Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the House judiciary committee wrote in a letter to the EU political parties that the EP is "encouraging antitrust enforcement efforts that appear to be motivated by politics, rather than grounded in factual and legal principles."

From competition to human rights

Meanwhile, Germany and Brazil introduced a motion at the UN on Tuesday on the "right to privacy in the digital age", co-sponsored by 53 other countries, which would seek to place new responsibilities on private companies like Google.

The motion, a response to several reports by high-ranking UN human rights officials in the wake of revolutions about mass online surveillance by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, calls for several new additions to global privacy protections.

In a speech to the UN's human rights committee, German ambassador to the UN Harald Braun laid out the aims of the resolution.

He said it aimed to protect communications metadata (information such as the participants, time or duration of communications) and emphasise the responsibility of private enterprises – who "control and manage the bulk of our data" - to respect human rights.

Braun said this was especially important when governments demanded the co-operation of private companies in handing over information.

Snowden's revelations showed that intelligence services including the American National Security Agency and Britain's GCHQ had backdoor access to many online companies' user data including giants like Google, Microsoft and Facebook.

The resolution further demands effective redress for people whose right to privacy has been violated by „unlawful or arbitrary“ surveillance.

It notes that "human rights defenders themselves often become victims of surveillance because of their activities" - as has been the case with journalists Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald, who first broke the Snowden story.

Braun pointedly referred to the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall in his speech, saying that "East German authorities were able to establish an elaborate system of surveillance even without today's modern technology.

"Germans are very sensitive to intrusions by State authorities into their right to privacy," Braun continued.

"It is crucial for the State to demonstrate that the surveillance activities it undertakes to defence legitimate security concerns are necessary and proportionate."

SEE ALSO: NSA leaker Snowden feted in Stuttgart


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