Ironically six of the original European colonial powers of yesteryear, the UK, Germany, France, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands, have aligned to resist the new virtual-colonial-power — Google’s hegemony over online private data.
These six leading EU members, which comprise 75% of the EU economy, have jointly launched national investigations of Google’s privacy actions. That’s because Google has paternalistically rebuffed and ignored the EU belief that Google’s 2012 unification of its sixty privacy policies is a serious violation of European data protection law, because it does not allow any meaningful use transparency or user choice to opt-out of Google’s private data collection.
Just like the European colonial powers colonized and extended their power over weaker peoples and areas and established very unequal power relationships, in the virtual world of the Internet Google has effectively virtually colonized digitally-weaker Europe. Google has roughly 90% search market share among EU nations and commands about half of all European online advertising.
EU nations, including their citizens, businesses, and media, are for all practical purposes virtually-dependent on Google to an exceptional extent to find and monetize information online. As effective digital colonies of Google, their exceptional online dependency on Google is in stark contrast to other nations with indigenous search engines like: the Czech Republic (Seznam has 45% share), South Korea (Naver has 72% share), China (Baidu has 76% share), and Russia (Yandex has 62% share).
In addition to believing that their citizens should not be the virtual vassals of a virtual sovereign Google – without any real rights to know, own or control their private data — the EU nations’ also believe that under EU law EU citizens’ private data only should be stored physically in the EU under their sovereign jurisdiction.
However, data is Google’s treasure. Google has already plundered most of the EU’s public and private information and shipped it back to their homeland datacenters.
Now EU countries are effectively saying we want our private data back, because it is ours, and Google has replied: “No.” Much like the European colonial powers have said “No” to many former colonies or conquests who have requested the return of national cultural antiquities that the colonial powers plundered in the past.
Apparently, Google CEO Larry Page has adopted a virtual “realpolitik” approach to statesmanship based on power and not law or morality — much like Prussia’s Otto Von Bismarck’s “realpolitik” in the late 19th century.
Google understands this conflict’s outcome resides in the realm of power, specifically Internet power. Google has more Internet power than anyone, and the EU nations have very little.
Google practically has assessed the weaponry available to the virtual indigenous EU nations to fight back against Google and found that it is nothing to fear. Google smirks at the EU’s Lilliputian privacy fining authority, which looks like natives’ knives and fists next to Google’s virtual global navy; its state-of-the-art digital ship cannons and muskets of Internet dominance; and its hard-to-match regiments of the best privacy lawyers, lobbyists and media handlers that Euros can buy.
Moreover, Google has repeatedly challenged EU and European authorities over privacy and competition, and to date, they have always won decisively. When Google invaded EU nations with thousands of Street View cars and photographed and posted online most everybody’s home without homeowners’ or authorities’ knowledge or permission, many nations objected, but ultimately acquiesced giving EU citizens little opportunity or choice to opt out.
When a tenacious German regulator demanded to examine a Street View car in person, he discovered it was also collecting private WiFi data communications (emails, credit card numbers, etc.) emanating from people’s homes without users’ knowledge or choice to opt out. While many nations investigated this Google mass-invasion of EU citizens’ privacy, again there resulted no enforcement action of consequence to deter Google in the future.
Even after several authorities learned that Google did not destroy the private WiSpy data they recorded, when they promised to do so, once again Google suffered no sanction of consequence or of deterrence.
Last year, Google announced it was consolidating its sixty-odd privacy policies into one without meaningful transparency or opt-out choice, the EU authorities asked Google to halt. True to form, Google ignored them, while paternalistically informing the EU’s privacy authorities that they were in compliance with EU data protection law — implying that EU privacy authorities were not expert in their own privacy law.
As for EU antitrust enforcement, the evidence-to-date unfortunately suggests that the EU competition authority has been subordinated effectively by Google’s greater practical and political power.
No less than three times over the last year, the EU Competition authority has threatened publicly and firmly to enforce EU antitrust law against Google for four antitrust violations by issuing a Statement of Objections. Every time after the EU authorities have loudly threatened enforcement action against Google with a hard deadline, the EU has quietly backed down and given Google many months more to continue their illegal and anti-competitive behavior.
Once again, in Google’s world of realpolitik, Google has been taught by the EU authorities’ repeated actions that despite their bluster and threats, in the end, they are more bark than bite and no real match for Google’s greater practical and political power.
For the first few centuries of the European colonial period, the colonial powers were mercantilist, meaning the asymmetry of power between the colonial power and the colonies enabled them to enrich themselves at the colonies’ expense and to mandate that their products and services enjoy total supremacy over those of the colonies’ despite merit. They were mercantilists because they had the power to dictate terms. Might was right in that era.
Very interestingly, eleven European digital merchants in Google’s virtual colonies on the European continent recently issued an open letter to their authorities asking for an end to Google’s virtual mercantilist trade with Europe, where Google uses its virtual sovereign market power to regularly favor its own products and services over indigenous competitive European products and services — in order to enrich Google at the expense of the digitally-weaker European virtual colonies and their indigenous people. Apparently might is still right in this virtual era.
Just as the colonies increasingly demanded more free trade with their colonial powers over time, now these European digital merchants have a simple free trade expectation from the de facto virtual sovereign power of Google in search and search advertising in Europe — given Google’s ~90% market share in Europe and dominance of online advertising.
Simply, they petition their indigenous authorities: “Google must be even handed. It must hold all services, including its own, to exactly the same standards, using exactly the same crawling, indexing, ranking, display and penalty algorithms.” They only ask for the Golden Rule Ethic from Google: to be treated as Google wishes to be treated.
Google’s upcoming new challenge to the European privacy authorities will be Google’s promotion of Google Glass, Google’s cloud-tethered digital eyeglasses that can record and videotape everything in the wearers’ view without other people’s knowledge or permission by default.
This could be an exact repeat of Google Street View and Google Street View WiSpy privacy problems; where the virtual colonial power dictates another change in the privacy culture of Europe that everything everywhere is public for Google’s absorption and not private for EU citizens to control.
If Google is true to its consistent past privacy behavior, it will effectively operate in a stop-us-if-you-can mode, knowing that in the past the EU authorities always have backed down and submitted to their virtual colonial power’s realpolitik dictates.
(Interestingly, the homes of Google’s leadership are not available on Google Street View like most everyone else’s are, and one can expect that Google will not allow any outsider to wear Google Glass in Google’s offices. That’s because everyone that is permitted to enter the Google sanctum must sign a very strict confidentiality agreement that they will not disclose any private or confidential information that they may learn while visiting Google.)
In sum, this is all about Google as virtual colonial power establishing its virtual realpolitik power relationship over its weaker European digital colonies. EU practices and laws must bend to comport with Google “law.” The EU’s digital “lingua franca” must change to lingua Google. And any form of EU Pax Romana must make way for Pax Google.
Simply this is a significant geo-political power struggle of the 21st century. The Czech Republic, South Korea, China and Russia are four different nations with very different approaches that have each maintained their digital sovereignty and independence in the virtual world by having a substantial indigenous search competitor to Google.
However, with no European indigenous competitor or counterweight to Google’s market and information power, will the EU surrender to full Digital-Colonialization, or will the EU assert their physical sovereignty and rule of law over the EU’s virtual world?
At bottom, this conflict is simple. Who is the digital sovereign in Europe – European authorities or Google?
[First published at The Precursor Blog, as part of the Google's Disrespect of Privacy Research Series]