Barack Obama has angered officials in Europe after suggesting that investigations by the European Union into companies like Google and Facebook were "commercially driven." In an interview with Recode, the president claimed that European "service providers who … can’t compete with ours, are essentially trying to set up some roadblocks for our companies to operate effectively there." The truth, however, is more nuanced than this.
"our companies have created it, expanded it, perfected it."
Obama says: "We have owned the internet. Our companies have created it, expanded it, perfected it in ways that they can’t compete. And oftentimes what is portrayed as high-minded positions on issues sometimes is just designed to carve out some of their commercial interests."
Over the past few years, it's true that EU regulators have attempted to crack down on what they perceive as the unfettered power of American companies in Europe. The targets for these officials haven't just been limited to commercial power and have included issues such as tax avoidance and privacy rights — including the so-called right to be forgotten which gives EU citizens the right to petition Google to remove links from certain search results.
Obama's comments on Europe start at 17 minutes in.
In response to questions concerning Silicon Valley's intrusion into people's personal data, Obama singled out Germany as a country that was "very sensitive to these issues." The president suggested that this was due to the country's "history with the Stasi" — the communist secret police that terrorized East Germany following World War II. Germany's chancellor Angela Merkel has previously compared the NSA to the Stasi.
A spokesperson for the European Commission called Obama’s comments "out of line," saying that "regulation should make it easier for non-EU companies to access the single market," according to a report in the Financial Times. The unnamed official said that "it is in [US companies’] interest that things are enforced in a uniform manner." (The "single market" mentioned here is an ongoing plan to boost the EU’s faltering economy with initiatives promoting the digital industry.)
Last year, the European Parliament voted in favor of breaking up Google
There's undoubtedly a desire in Europe to curb the commercial power of US companies. Last year, the European Parliament voted in favor of breaking up Google to ensure "competitive conditions," while other firms that are leveraging technology to beat established industries have faced a backlash. Uber, for example, triggered protests across the continent last year with taxi drivers arguing that the company was taking advantage of legislative loopholes to avoid costly regulations.
What Obama failed to mention, however, is that both European and US companies have taken advantage of the EU's readiness to regulate internet firms. In 2007 Norway-based Opera filed antitrust complaints against Microsoft, with Google later tipping off EU investigators in a follow-up case that was concluded in 2013. In the same year, Microsoft and Oracle banded together with a number of companies from both Europe and the US to launch "Fairsearch" — a body that lobbied extensively against Google's dominance. The complaints still continue, with a Portuguese app store named Aptoide filing antitrust claims against Google in July last year.
On Twitter, some individuals also took offense at Obama's comments for his perceived arrogance. Martha Lane Fox, an internet entrepreneur and member of the UK House of Lords, called Obama's comments "bad bad bad" before noting that the "invention of the internet [was the responsibility of] no one country."
Obama's comments were more balanced than this, however, with his claim that American companies "have owned the internet" reflecting the fact that it is US firms that have overwhelmingly shaped how we use the internet today. But regardless of who built the internet, no one can deny the right of those who use it to question how it works.