Narrative: EU vs US Tech
Each narrative page (like this) has a page describing and evaluating the narrative, followed by all the posts on the site tagged with that narrative. Scroll down beyond the introduction to see the posts.
Narrative: EU vs US Tech (Oct 3, 2017)
Written: October 3, 2017
This narrative, will like all the others on the site, soon have a narrative essay in this spot. For now, this serves as a placeholder. At a basic level, the EU vs US Tech narrative is one that’s grown in prominence over the last couple of years as the EU and its member states have taken legal or other action against a variety of big US tech companies including Apple, Alphabet, Amazon, and others. The narrative around this set of events is very different between Europeans and Americans, with the former seeing it as being largely about big foreign tech companies which dominate markets but pay little tax and operate with little regulatory oversight, while the latter see it more as protectionism and retaliation for the far greater success of US tech companies relative to their European counterparts.
EU Takes Action Against Amazon and Ireland Over Taxes (Oct 4, 2017)
It was reported earlier in the week that the EU would soon take action against both Amazon and Ireland (with regard to Apple) over the underpayment of taxes in the trading block, and both actions are now official. In the Amazon case, the company is being asked to pay 250 million euros to get the company up to the level of taxes the EU says it should have paid in Luxembourg over the last few years, while in the case of Ireland, the country is being taken to EU court by the European Commission over the fact that it has not yet collected and placed in escrow the 13 billion euros Apple owes it. I’ve covered both cases in the past, so I won’t add much here, but of course this is all part of the ongoing tension between the EU and the US tech industry on a variety of fronts, something that prompted me to create the first new narrative here on the site in a while and retroactively tag a number of past posts against it – you can see it here.
In a case with significant parallels to the European Commission’s tax case against Apple, it appears that it’s preparing to take similar action against Amazon over its past payment of taxes in Luxembourg, where its European operations are headquartered. As with the Apple case and Ireland, the country had offered Amazon reassurances that it was in compliance with local tax laws and the company has therefore been paying taxes in good faith, but the Commission feels that the deal involved special considerations which go against the normal tax rules for businesses in the country and therefore violate EU rules. The decision might be announced on Wednesday, and is likely to leave Amazon with a tax bill to Luxembourg for several hundred million euros, much smaller than Apple’s tax bill of 13 billion euros, but still significant given the level of Amazon’s overall profits in Europe, which have always been fairly low.
via Financial Times
This is just a quick follow-up on yesterday’s item on Google’s second proposed remedy to the finding that its Shopping search feature violates the EU’s competition laws. Google has now begun rolling out the changes that were reported but not officially confirmed by the company, and the EU’s stance is still that it will have to wait and see how the changes pan out before it rules on whether the fix is acceptable. The separation and opening up of bidding to other companies certainly leaves the door open to similar remedies in the other cases pending at the European Commission as well as other areas it may choose to investigate, including Maps, News, and so on, which would create much more far-reaching effects for Google than this change alone. It’s going to be a tough few years for Google in Europe.
After its initial proposal to address the European Commission’s concerns over its Shopping search feature apparently failed to pass muster, it appears Google is now offering to separate its Shopping search business from its core search business in the EU, and force it to bid for ten slots above the regular search results alongside other comparison shopping services. The reporting here from Bloomberg makes it sound like Google might still get more formal approval of its proposal, despite the EU Competition Commissioner’s remarks to Bloomberg last week which suggested that it would have to play things by ear. This solution will certainly seem less fishy than the first proposal, which I said had significant issues, but it’s still not clear whether it will meet the approval of either the EU or Google’s competitors. Certainly, Google is now going to have to bid for slots it previously received for free, which will dramatically change the economics of the Shopping search in the EU. But as long as Google has exclusive rights to its past data about the results from those links in the past, it will continue to have something of an unfair advantage over competitors in knowing what to bid for them in future.
This seems like a totally bizarre stance from the EU’s Competition Commissioner in response to Google’s proposed remedy to its alleged abuse of its dominant market position. Google is reported to have offered an auction to fill the Shopping slot it previously occupied exclusively, and Margrethe Vestager says her office won’t approve the remedy as such, but will wait to see whether it works in the market. That’s enormously unfair as an approach because it means Google could act in good faith, believing it’s proposed an adequate remedy, only to find out much later than it hasn’t and is subject to back-dated fines. Given that the European Commission found that Google violated its rules, it should surely also be the arbiter of whether the proposed remedy fixed things or not. And allowing the comparison shopping services that prompted the investigation in the first place to be the judges instead seems particularly unreasonable given that they have a vested interest in continuing to extract concessions from Google. I said when the proposed remedy was reported last week that I thought it unlikely to be sufficient, but to leave Google in legal limbo on this point just isn’t reasonable. It gives the impression that the EU has an axe to grind with Google and wants it to suffer rather than simply providing the legal clarity it should be entitled to.
A few weeks back, when Google filed its proposed response to the European Commission’s investigation into its Shopping feature, I suggested that there were only a few ways in which it might comply with the Commission’s requirements: “kill its Shopping product entirely in the EU; relegate it to either the organic or paid slots on a page rather than giving it the current prominent placement it enjoys; or create a broader “comparison shopping” section above the regular search results featuring both its own and competing services.” In the end, it sounds like what Google has proposed is a combination of those things – allowing other comparison shopping sites to bid to appear in the Shopping section where its own results currently appear exclusively, while placing an artificial cap on its own maximum bids to avoid dominating the results after the change.
The latter highlights the unlikelihood that the solution will be palatable to Google’s competitors or the EU – either it forces itself to sit out entirely from the bidding process, or it will regularly beat out competitors. Google knows better than anyone else what placement in that slot is currently worth, because it’s the only company that’s ever occupied it, and it therefore enjoys an unfair advantage. It could therefore set arbitrary caps in line with what it thinks those slots are worth, allowing competing companies to take the slots it doesn’t want to and reserving the best for itself. Either this has to be an open marketplace, in which case Google’s massive scale will likely allow it to beat out competitors for every slot it actually wants (as the WSJ points out it already does in many cases), or Google has to be excluded. This is where I go back to the solutions I proposed – either open up the Shopping slot in a similar fashion to Microsoft’s Windows browser choice options, or do away with the feature entirely. This proposed solution seems unlikely to pass muster with the EC.