There will no doubt be a fair degree of head-scratching among those watching and reading Google's Chief Executive for Europe, Matt Brittin, talking to Politico, through which his answers raised more questions than answers. We all know that Google is now in hot water in Europe. The EU's shots across its bows have turned into a list of complaint's it needs to address or have accusations of anti-competitive behaviour turned into formal charges. It was probably little surprise, then, that Brittin was in Brussels and offered a rare interview on the subject.
A summary of the interview would read along the lines of Brittin half apologising for Google inadvertently getting it wrong, but the US tech giant probably didn't realise how different a market -- or even set of markets -- the EU represents and it is keen to come to an amicable settlement on anti-competitive charges it still refutes. Strangely, Brittin is at pains to point out that Google is a very European company with 9,000 employees in the area who are, he says, mainly European. It begs the question of how he can say they didn't get EU differences on the one hand while pointing out how European an organisation Google is. How can Google suddenly "get it" on Europe when it has been so European all along?
There are two irreversible truths about the situation that are forcing Brittin now to try to spin Google out of a tight spot.
First, Google is widely seen as leaving it too late. The company has been warned for years, it has been probed and probed again -- yet it's only when we're on the verge of formal charges and a huge fine being readied that it starts to holds out the olive branch of reaching an amicable agreement.
Secondly, Google is due for a beating from the EU. It might argue about the fairness of this, but just as Al Capone never served a minute in jail for all those killings and running illegal liquor, so too Google could end up being found guilty of the easiest "crime'" the EU can pin on it.
The complaints are manifold around tax avoidance, privacy, data protection, the right to be forgotten and copyright infringements -- but the EU is, at its heart, a business organisation and it is well equipped to deal with issues surrounding competition. Brittin made the point again that customers have not suffered through Google having a 90% market share and promoting its own companies above rivals in its results. It's not a bad point, actually. Who has ever felt outraged that a map handily appears automatically when we search for a location or a picture of that item we're searching for appears in a special box for us to click on? Trouble is, it's likely to fall on deaf ears at the European Parliament and the European Commission, which appear to have accepted that bypassing rivals to promote its own material is anti-competitive. It's not about consumers so much as it is about the companies Google gives itself preferential treatment over.
The EU Parliament recently made its views clear. In a non-binding vote, it suggested that the company should be broken up so its search engine is entirely separate from its other companies. That's no doubt why Brittin is in Brussels and giving interviews. It would appear the penny is finally dropping that after years of talk -- the EU actually means business this time.
What's very clear is that platitudes are not going to win the day for the US tech giant. Saying you didn't get how different the EU was when you then claim to be a European organisation is just plain daft. The time for talk at Google is drawing to a close and when it will need to do is come up with responses to the anti-competitive claims before it. Promises of we'll try to be more European in the future will just annoy.
The ball is in Google's court, and that court is in Brussels.