The European Commission has opened a formal investigation into Google to ascertain whether or not the company’s operating system, applications, and services have breached EU anti-trust rules.
The Commission is seeking to figure out if Google has engaged in anti-competitive activities in its business philosophy and has tried to abuse what is a dominant commercial position in the European market. This formal inquiry actually goes back five years, when the EU was concerned primarily with Google’s dominance over the advertising search market (at the time it controlled 95% of the EU). The current incarnation of the inquiry now focuses on three main points:
- Whether Google has illegally hindered the development and access of rival mobile applications.
- Whether Google has prevented smartphone and tablet manufacturers from developing and marketing modified and potentially competing versions of Android.
- Whether Google has illegally hindered the development of rival applications and services by tying or bundling certain applications and services with other exclusively Google interfaces.
Google has always refuted such charges, its chief executive boldly declaring things like it is ‘not the gateway to the internet’ and that it was not true that Google would ‘promote its own products at the expense of its competitors.’ It is this last aspect which brings a bit of the surreal into the situation and should leave any sane thinkers of commercial activity in Europe shaking their collective heads. It is truly a farce majeure where two Goliaths desperately want the public to believe they both are in fact Davids.
Companies built upon the prevalence and popularity of the internet have always benefited from what I consider to be a bit of false praise. Whether you want to call them social media platforms, internet service providers, mobile application purveyors or any other semi-technical fancy phrase, the one simple reality of all such entities like Google is this: they are and always will be a BUSINESS first and foremost. The point of business is to be successful. The best success is one that is maximized and leveraged. This by default means earning a dominant position in which there may be rivals and competition, but such challenges must never amount to severe problems or damage to the company’s bottom line or market share. This is the great confusion of people in Western states: the conflation of capitalist rules with democratic principles. It is true the West has done an admirable job of instilling both systems into their societies. But it is not true that capitalism and democracy are two perfectly mirrored sides of the same coin. This is just the naïve mistake of those not bothering to understand how their relationship has always been a tethered and tense one, usually to the benefit of all, but not ever absent discord and disagreement.
Which brings us back to Google: ‘internet companies’ have helped themselves over the years by creating a brand image that emphasizes freedom, access, information, and connectivity. Indeed, in America we often call this process ‘drinking the company Kool-Aid,’ which means buying into your own propaganda. Companies like Google and Microsoft have always been quite enthusiastic about drinking their own Kool-Aid, believing they are somehow not just businesses, but something more: something more valuable and more productive for the overall growth and functioning of free societies all over the globe. It is indeed a wonderful brand image to develop. It also happens to be exaggerated. As long as Google or Microsoft dominate their respective markets, it is easy for them to focus on and proclaim how much ‘more than a business’ they are. Inquiries like the present EU investigation, however, call this mythology into question.
First instinct in the face of accusation is to of course always deny. But let’s examine the statements made by Google more objectively: Google, an ‘internet company’ that specializes in being the first portal for consumers to think of when it comes to net access, does not want to be ‘the gateway to the internet?’ Of course it does. It is almost ridiculous to consider the alternative. Second, as Google begins to grow and diversify its holdings, services, products, and applications, it doesn’t want to promote such products and services over other competitors? Again, of course it does. Why? Simply because it is a capitalist business operating in a global capitalist system. Because if what the Google chairman said was true it would mean Google is literally acting against the fundamental axiom of basic business, indeed of capitalism itself: we create not just to sell but to sell more than anyone else. Which subsequently means Google is acting against Google if it is not remaining faithful to this mission. Which version of reality seems more likely to any rational consumer: Google acting against itself or acting against rivals and competition? A more rhetorical question has never been asked.
The EU’s probe into this leads to a fascinating philosophical question that gets to the very heart of commercial activism and has different answers across the globe: WHO EXACTLY is responsible to guarantee greater competition and access to choice in the market? Should that competition be ‘facilitated’ by government watchdog agencies because businesses inherently cannot be trusted to engender honest competition and consumer choice? Or should it be a much more ‘organic’ process, Darwinian even, where only the best ideas, products, and organizations survive the competition, with the consumers’ actions themselves deciding everyone’s business fate? America has often prided itself on being in the latter school of thought (though anyone who looks closely at American economic policy and economic history knows this is not entirely true) while Europe more staunchly likes to position itself as the champion of the former (again, also not entirely true). These are the dual dilemmas secretly hidden under the layers of the EU inquiry into Google. On the one hand, Google is trying to maintain and secure its brand image as the benevolent and benign Goliath. Not a marauder inflicting damage to the market and consumers, but rather a friendly giant that should be appreciated and left alone. On the other hand, the EU is trying to stand on its own brand image as the Goliath that protects the people and guarantees true commercial freedom. Not an overly meddlesome bureaucracy whose good intentions only end up causing market regression, but rather the sole legitimate power able to stand up for the people against major multinational behemoths like Google.
The irony of ironies is that in this battle between two Goliaths, one commercial and the other political, BOTH try so earnestly to portray themselves as David fighting against injustice. Be wary, Europeans, whenever actors with pockets deeper than the ocean depths both cry ‘woe is me’ and seek to earn your sympathy party. In such cases the only woe is usually your own and the only true sympathy needed is for the consumers of the EU itself. In the end, the decision-making of any Goliath tends to be suspect.