German publisher warns against Google

Mathias Döpfner
Mathias Döpfner

The head of Europe’s biggest newspaper publisher by circulation has accused Google of seeking to establish a digital “superstate” free from the constraints of antitrust regulators and privacy concerns.

Google controls so much data, becoming the global equivalent of what Deutsche Post once was to mail or Deutsche Telekom to making phone calls in Germany, which is why it is so important for the American giant to be transparent and fair,

In a provocative open letter to Google chief Eric Schmidt, the chief executive of Axel Springer, says: “We are afraid of Google. I have to say so clearly and honestly because hardly any of my colleagues dares to do so publicly.”

Mathias Döpfner’s assault on Google begins on familiar terrain by lamenting the US tech company’s dominance of the search engine market, but shifts into broader anxiety about the extent of Google’s ambitions, including its development of driverless cars and purchase of dronemaker, Titan Aerospace.

He writes: “Google not only knows where we’re going in our cars but also what we do while we’re driving. Forget Big Brother – Google is better!”

The letter is published in Wednesday’s edition of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, an upmarket conservative daily which is not part of the Springer stable, and responds to a guest column in the same newspaper by Mr Schmidt.

In his column, Google’s executive chairman welcomed an advertising partnership between the US company and Springer, which appeared to mark the end of a long confrontation between the two.

Springer is among the publishers that lobbied for ancillary copyright legislation that would give publishers the right to license their web content for use by others.

The changes to copyright law were passed by Germany’s parliament last year but watered down to enable news aggregators to continue to publish newspaper excerpts free of charge.

Mr Döpfner criticised the EU’s recent settlement with Google, which permitted the internet group to continue publishing paid-for links at the top of its pages ahead of algorithmically chosen results.

Google agreed with Brussels to allow rival search engines a showing alongside its own results, a concession Mr Döpfner described as “protection money”.

“As the saying goes: ‘if you don’t want us to kill you, you’ll have to pay,’” the Springer chief executive wrote.
The combative letter describes the US company as “Goliath” to Springer’s “David”.

In a passage speculating that Google may be planning to build offshore working environments to escape democratic accountability, Mr Döpfner writes: “Is Google planning to operate in a legal vacuum without the hassle of anti-trust regulators and data protection… does Google plan in all seriousness a digital superstate in which its citizens will naturally only do good and “won’t be evil”.”

Springer, publisher of the tabloid Bild, has long been reviled by German leftwingers for its ultraconservative views and political influence.

Mr Döpfner has reoriented the business away from print, selling regional newspapers including the Hamburger Abendblatt, the first daily newspaper created by company founder Axel Springer, and acquiring a 24 hour news channel that will be used to supply video for its digital platforms.

A Google spokesman declined to comment, but referred to Mr Schmidt’s column last week, in which he called for co-operation with publishers and warned against “heavy-handed regulation” such as copyright charges.

Mr Schmidt wrote that such regulation risked creating an “innovation desert” in Europe. “Some companies will leave and, worse still, others will never get off the ground – blocked by rules designed to protect incumbents.”

Source: FT