US tech groups such as Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon are facing scrutiny from a growing number of regulatory bodies in Europe © FT montage

Germany’s top telecoms regulator has set its sights on US technology groups such as Google and Facebook, insisting that providers of messaging and email services should be regulated just like ordinary telecommunications companies.

“What we are seeing is that the line between traditional telecommunications services and web-based services like [Google’s] Gmail and [Facebook’s] WhatsApp has become very blurred. Users often cannot see any difference at all,” Jochen Homann, the president of Germany’s Bundesnetzagentur, said in an interview with the FT. 

“It cannot be right that a company providing traditional telecommunications services has to meet certain regulatory requirements, like those concerning data protection, while a company providing comparable services over the web does not,” he added. 

The Bundesnetzagentur, or Federal Network Agency, has been locked in a legal battle with Google since 2014, after it ordered the US internet giant to register its email service as a telecommunications operator.

That status triggers a series of additional regulatory requirements, in areas such as data protection and security, including the obligation to provide information and access to police and security services. The case is currently before the European Court of Justice. 

Mr Homann made clear that he regards the legal dispute with Google as a test case, and that victory at the European tribunal would be followed by a broader crackdown.

“We want European companies to have a level playing field when it comes to data protection, public safety and registration requirements. That would apply to messaging services such as WhatsApp, Facebook and all the others that offer similar services,” he said. 

“We have shown the way forward. We want these companies to meet the same regulatory requirements in principle as conventional telecommunications companies, for example when it comes to messaging services,” Mr Homann said. “Companies should be aware of the direction we are going in.” 

Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon are facing scrutiny from a growing number of regulatory bodies in Europe, from the antitrust arm of the European Commission to Germany’s Federal Cartel Office as well as tax authorities across the continent.

The probes are based on a variety of legal and regulatory grounds but reflect a general anxiety in Europe about the market clout of the leading US technology and internet groups. 

Google declined to comment on the court case itself but cautioned that the course set by the German regulator was at odds with the rest of Europe.

“The particular importance of this question arises from the potential consequences . . . for other communication services and from the impact on other EU member states,” Google said in a statement. “The Bundesnetzagentur is the only supervisory authority in Europe that . . . regards the registration of Gmail as a telecommunications service as necessary.” 

The Bundesnetzagentur was set up 20 years ago to supervise Germany’s energy, telecommunications and postal sectors. According to Mr Homann, one big concern for the agency is the state of the country’s energy and communications infrastructure.

Germany is a notorious broadband laggard, with much of the country still served by old copper cables rather than a faster and more robust fibre-optic network. 

“Germany spent a long time backing copper and the speeds you get with copper are more than enough for most households. But it is clear that fibre is the future,” Mr Homann said.

Jochen Homann, the president of the Bundesnetzagentur (federal network agency).
Jochen Homann regards the dispute with Google as a test case © Jacobia Dahm/FT

Regulation, he added, would play an important role in encouraging the rollout of fibre-optic — signalling that his agency was leaning towards a light-touch approach for network companies such as Deutsche Telekom. 

“We have to find ways of making it more attractive to invest in the expansion of the fibre network, including for Deutsche Telekom. The problem at the moment is that hardly anyone is prepared to pay extra for it,” he said. 

Mr Homann added: “We've been saying for some time now that we don’t want to regulate fibre in the same way as we do the copper network. We’re currently looking at how far we can scale back regulation and if there is a need for it at all.” 

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