Incoming EU digital chief lashes out at Google
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Europe’s incoming digital chief has taken another swipe at Google, saying he would consider hitting the US technology group with an EU levy for displaying copyright protected material.
The warning from Günther Oettinger, Germany’s EU commissioner, is the latest in a series of outspoken criticisms that single out Google and reflect Europe’s political mood against Silicon Valley.
“If Google takes intellectual property from the EU, and makes use of it, then the EU can protect this property and impose a levy on Google for it,” Mr Oettinger told Handelsblatt.
Since his nomination to oversee Europe’s digital sector, Mr Oettinger, currently energy commissioner, has suggested Google could be forced to be neutral and objective in presenting search results, has called for its market power to be curbed, and raised concerns about it providing software for cars.
“It must not happen that Google makes future products such as cars or televisions and European companies remain the role of the supplier,” he said earlier this month.
Asked about Google and copyright protection, a spokesperson for the outgoing digital commissioner Neelie Kroes said “the commission’s job is to solve market failures and enforce rules, not target companies”.
“There are many legal and social issues Google needs to address,” the spokesperson said. “But the EU acts on facts and complaints, not theories and prejudices and that legal base isn’t going to change. It’s not OK to turn a company into a punching bag and I wouldn’t expect the new Commission to do so.”
Copyright reform within the EU is fraught with difficulty, with member states, the parliament and even parts of the European Commission taking starkly opposing positions on what it should entail and who it should benefit.
Mr Oettinger’s aides said that he has yet to flesh out his views on the detail of copyright reform.
Mr Oettinger’s suggestions resemble changes to the copyright law in Germany, which gave publishers the right to license their web content for others’ use.
But Google and other aggregators were able to continue using snippets of news articles after legislators amended the law to allow the use of “single words or small text excerpts”.
A number of media groups including Axel Springer are pursuing legal action for compensation from Google, the dominant search engine in Europe.
At a forum in Berlin this month, Germany’s economics minister Sigmar Gabriel supported the publishers’ cause, criticising Google for using press material without compensation.
“We have to first define what intellectual property is,” Mr Oettinger said. “Then we have to stipulate the rights of the creators – the artists, academics and authors. Finally, there is the matter of compensation.”
The minister said: “I think that’s a funny business model.”
Mr Gabriel appeared at the forum alongside Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman, who said the company’s search engine drew readers to publishers’ websites.
One senior Brussels lobbyist derided Mr Oettinger’s suggestions of an EU-wide levy as an “unbelievable” attempt “to set up a system to transfer wealth to my friends in German industry . . . it is a clear signal that Europe is in protectionist mode”.
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