Google’s European chief has admitted that the company screwed up in Europe.
The search giant has a strained relationship on the continent, facing a litany of complaints and accusations on issues ranging from alleged tax avoidance to anti-trust allegations.
In response, the Californian company shook up its operational structure in February 2015 — unifying the previously separate units Northern and Central Europe, and Southern and Eastern Europe along with the Middle East and Africa. They were brought under the control of Matt Brittin, who was appointed “President of EMEA Business and Operations” — a newly-created title.
Brittin has now spoken up, giving his first public interview to Politico since his promotion. The 46-year-old former Olympic rower is candid and conciliatory about the company’s struggle to see eye-to-eye with European authorities: “We don’t always get it right.”
“As far as Europe is concerned: We get it. We understand that people here are not the same in their attitudes to everything as people in America.” Brittin identifies a failure of communication as part of the reason relationships have deteriorated: “We just didn’t have the people on the ground to be able to have some of those conversations as we grew.”
Google’s position in Europe is a curious one. It dominates the search market — far more than it does in the US, its home market. In America, it holds a (desktop) search share of around 77%, according to StatCounter, while in Europe, it’s more than 91%. But despite this — or perhaps because of it — the company has become the subject of considerable ire from authorities.
The issues that Google faces scrutiny over include:
- Accusations of tax avoidance. Google — along with other Silicon Valley giants — has been attacked over financial arrangements that significantly lower its tax bills. Matt Brittin — Google Europe’s new boss — was infamously grilled by British MPs over the issue (see below).
- The right to be forgotten. Following a ruling in May 2014, European citizens can appeal to Google to have “outdated” or “irrelevant” information removed from search listings about them. Google fiercely opposes the ruling, but it has implemented the takedown system.
- Antitrust allegations. Google dominates the European search market, with a marketshare of upwards of 90%. The European Commission has an antitrust investigation underway into Google. And in November, the European Parliament took the unprecedented step of voting to break up Google and split off its search arm. The vote was non-binding but it illustrates the level of animosity towards the search giant.
- Publishing conflicts. Spain recently attempted to charge Google for linking to articles by Spanish publishers. Google refused to pay up, instead closing down its Google News service in the country.
Brittin — unsurprisingly — disagrees with the accusations of anti-trust conduct. “There is no evidence that consumers have been harmed here,” he told Politico, “and actually no evidence that complainants have been harmed.” Furthermore, “there has never been a more competitive time than this in terms of the choices that consumers have.”
Google clearly hopes that Brittin’s appointment can help to turn the page. He says his employer wants “to be pragmatic and get to a point where we can continue to invest in building great products for everyone.”