Google is going to close its engineering office in Russia. Russian authorities have been cracking down on internet activity throughout 2014, the Financial Times says.
The move is part of a pattern. In Russia, a new law forces tech companies to keep all data about Russians inside the country’s borders. Google has so far declined to comment. The government asked Google to remove around 253 links from its search engine in a six-month period last year, the FT reports. Google may well be joined in its escape by a host of entrepreneurs and engineers who want to work in less restrictive environments.
Google and its various units have now withdrawn, been kicked out of, or face crippling restrictions in Russia, China, Spain and the EU generally. It shows how hobbled even the most innovative tech companies can become in countries that do not have laws guaranteeing free speech.
In the tech world generally — and particularly in Silicon Valley — the prevailing ethos is a libertarian one. Founders tend to believe that their companies are transforming society for the better, and that government is a vestige of the industrial era that can be disrupted and swept away by consumer demand and the distribution of power to individuals. These are the people who believe they can create their own new, independent countries on artificial islands floating off the coast of California, after all.
But recent events are challenging all that: Governments are fighting back and in the short-run, they’re winning:
- Yesterday, Google announced that Google News is closing in Spain. A new Spanish law, which will come into effect in January, requires newspapers to charge Google News to show their stories. “We’ll remove Spanish publishers from Google News, and close Google News in Spain,” the company said on its blog.
- And most famously, the European Parliament voted to break up Google in the EU’s member states last month. Legislators in Strasbourg voted 458 to 173 in favour of the proposal. EU regulators believe that Google uses its monopoly to distort the market.
- Google had already made a decision not to operate in China, where it faced state censorship rules it was unwilling to live with.
- In India, phone manufacturer Xiaomi, the “Apple of China”, was banned from the country when the Delhi High Court ruled it infringed on patents owned by Ericsson. (In the West, patent disputes rarely stop companies from operating altogether.)
- And then there’s Uber: The ride-sharing taxi company has been banned in dozens of individual cities from Las Vegas to Mumbai. In London, the taxi cartel lobby argues that its entire structure is illegal. In Bangkok, Uber was banned this week following claims a driver raped a customer.
The long-run is another matter. The EU and the US spent much of the 1990s and early 2000s trying to break up Microsoft, which at the time had a monopoly position tying its Explorer internet browser to the Windows operating system. Microsoft lost its dominance of the browser and OS markets, but not because of government regulation. Google and Apple came along with more interesting alternative products, and consumers abandoned Explorer in droves. The antitrust fight became an interesting footnote to tech history, but not much more.