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Google Sets Out To Repair Its Image In Europe

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Google is holding public meetings this week in Europe. It wants to repair its brand and its business. If you were to Google, Google in Europe, you'd find anti-trust investigations and outrage over privacy. A French official even claims the company threatens the sovereignty of France. To learn why all this is happening, we're joined by Danny Hakim, The New York Times's European economic correspondent. He's in London. Welcome to the program.

DANNY HAKIM: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: Was there some particular incident that started all this focus on Google?

HAKIM: I think it's been a gradual change of perception. I think certainly the Snowden spying scandal has made it more difficult for all the big American technology companies to operate. That's certainly poured gas on the fire.

INSKEEP: So the suspicion of the United States because of the National Security Agency has spread over to companies that in some cases were suspected of collaborating with the NSA?

HAKIM: Yeah, I think that's right. I mean, it's also important to remember at the same time Google is even more popular in Europe than it is in the United States. Its market share in Europe is 90 percent, whereas in the United States it has about two-thirds. So it is extremely popular with consumers, you know. I think a lot of regulators and policymakers are also concerned that European tech companies aren't getting a fair shot to compete.

INSKEEP: Ninety percent of the market, which is the point at which Americans would be saying, wow this is a monopoly. So you have Europeans who are pushing against the company in the same way?

HAKIM: Yes. For several years, there's been an antitrust investigation into its search business, and it appeared they had reached a settlement several months ago. But then there was a real backlash to the settlement, that it wasn't tough enough on Google. So now the regulators are asking for more, and it's unclear when they'll settle this case.

INSKEEP: How is it, by the way, that Google threatens the sovereignty of France?

HAKIM: (Laughter) You know, I don't know how to answer that. I think probably the French might say there's other things that threaten their sovereignty besides Google as well, but I don't know. I think, again, in general across Europe the tech industry is far less robust than it is in the United States, and I think the thing that concerns, you know, regulators in a lot of different countries is Google is now expanding well beyond search into many different areas. And can European companies compete if Google is sort of directing you to their own in-house App Store or, you know, travel site or what have you?

INSKEEP: Oh, so Google becomes a doorkeeper - a gatekeeper that ends up directing all the business their way and destroys European tech?

HAKIM: That's right. You know, people call it sort of a gateway to the Internet. In fact that's become such a touchy issue that Eric Schmidt, the chairman of Google, put out a sort of lengthy statement addressing Europeans saying, we're not a gateway to the Internet.

He gave a number of examples, I believe he said Facebook messenger is a more popular app than Google is in Europe. So he was trying to make the case that Google is not a gateway to the Internet. I think that's a claim that a lot of Europeans, you know, a lot of people would probably take issue with just because Google is certainly one major way people access the Internet.

INSKEEP: What else is Google doing? We mentioned these public meetings to repair its reputation?

HAKIM: Well, you do have the more traditional corporate approach. They've tripled their spending on lobbying in Brussels - since 2010 they've tripled spending. So, you know, while this case has been going on, they've become much more active in lobbying.

INSKEEP: Ah, Brussels where the European Union is based. Go on.

HAKIM: That's right. Now, their spending in Brussels is still about a third of what Microsoft spends. I think it's important to remember that some degree of Google's problems in Europe are, you know, a result of Microsoft. I mean, Microsoft and Google are fierce rivals. You know, Microsoft is one of the complaints in the antitrust case; they've been very active or groups they back have been very active in stirring up trouble for Google.

INSKEEP: Danny Hakim is The New York Times's European economic correspondent. Thanks very much.

HAKIM: Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.