Category Archives: Europe

Unfounded european protectionism against Google

Several European states and European companies seem to be planning a host of measures to curb the business of Google. The excuse is that Google makes too much money. Not a bad excuse, as lame excuses go.

Governments and companies around Europe are “unhappy” that Google is here to compete. Publishers in Germany complain that they only earn €100m per year in advertisement, while Google earns €1.2bn (in Germany). In Spain, the main telecom operator is considering charging Google for the use of its network. In Italy, privacy protection advocates are calling for making Google liable for the content of its Youtube service (despite it all being provided by Youtube users, not Youtube itself). In the U.S. Google has faced opposition to the new business models it has pioneered, specially from the publishing industry.

All in all, Google is under attack, simply because it is big and successful. We’ve seen this over and over throughout history: Accepting change is not easy, and there are people who feel threatened by the changes brought on by the Internet (and Google). These people resort, like many humans have done in the past, to attacking the new big guy, rather than accepting that things have changed.

Some of Google’s services have introduced new ways of conducting old business. Some of these have been more successful than others, and it is the very successful ones that come under fire from the competition and from regulatory bodies. But that’s no surprise: None of the criticism that Google suffers is founded; it is only meant to protect someone else’s business, while there is no real claim behind the accusations.

Before Google existed, there were other search engines out there: We used to use Altavista and then Yahoo (circa 1996 or 1998). Noone ever complained that Altavista’s search facility was a threat to privacy (Google’s search engine is seen by some as a means of control over people’s interests). Noone ever complained that Yahoo’s e-mail service looked at the content of private e-mails to display targeted advertisement side-by-side your e-mails (Google’s e-mail service is considered by some as an invasion of privacy, for Google’s AdWords uses your e-mail content to display targeted advertisement, analogously to what Yahoo used to do).

The difference is that today, the number of Internet users is far larger than in those old days of the Internet, and now any company with a good product (like Google) can attract lots and lots (and lots) of users, producing high revenues for that company. Along with the high revenues come the hyenas trying to scrape some of that money from Google, simply to try and cash in on Google’s success (like Telefónica in Spain), or simply because they are unwilling to accept competition (publishers in Germany).

Telefónica (the main telecom operator in Spain) has proposed to charge for the use of Telefonica’s network to reach customers. As such, Google would have to pay Telefónica, because Google users reach Google services through Telefónica’s network. This is completely outrageous: A customer of Telefonica’s will sign up for Telefónica services, to be able to reach several services that exist out there in the Internet: reading newspapers, writing blogs, shopping on-line, checking e-mail, or searching for information. But now the operator sees the cash cow in Google and they try to make up a new excuse to take money from Google, just because they do have the cash. This is plain and simple highway robbery.

Likewise, German publishers complain that this new competitor (Google) has eaten some of their market share of advertisement, and they turn to the government to “help” them by stopping, curbing, or charging Google somehow.

It is outrageous to see how private companies (Telefónica and German publishers for instance) turn to governments to introduce legislation intended to benefit them, but disguised as legislation that curbs some professedly monopolistic practice of Google. It is also shameful to see public authorities (the European Commission or the Italian Government, for instance) introduce legislation to attack Google. Europe must change their ways, embrace innovation and thus embrace strong competition from the outside, if we do want Europe to survive. As a European citizen, I do not want protectionist practices like those of the E.C., Italy, Telefónica (and many others). They are the wrong way to help the European citizen or the European business.

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Censored Spanish anthem?

Alberto Contador (from Pinto, in Spain) won the Tour de France today, but when he climbed up to the podium, the Danish anthem was played instead of the Spanish one. Mistake? I doubt it… it was pretty clear that Contador would win the Tour. How can the organizers make a mistake on what anthem to play? The on-line media I have read contains no explanations from the organizers about the mistake, but I think there is wrong-doing to avoid the Spanish anthem being heard. (Yes, I am proposing some small-time conspiracy theory, with the only proof of how absurd and unlikely the so-called mistake is).

False privacy protection

Finland’s Parliament passed a law allowing companies to track workers’ e-mail messages, but not to read the messages themselves. With this law in effect, companies will be able to retain information about the e-mails, such as the sender, recipient, the sent and received time and date, and whether the email contained attachments [ref].

Even with such a weak law (it does not permit reading the content of messages), some opposed it arguing it “gives employers more powers than the police, and could lead to an erosion of Finland’s proud heritage as a world leader in human rights” [ref].

It is rumoured that Nokia was pushing for such a law to pass (for it was dubbed “Lex Nokia”). If it were so, they should be applauded for that, because opponents to that law are but yet another example of undue zeal for privacy.

There’s no privacy concern with work-related e-mail messages, or any other company communication material. All company communications, and all company communications channels should belong to the company, not to the workers. The company should have the right to access and read the contents of their worker’s e-mail at any time. The content of those communications are not private. They do not belong to the individual. Workers are dealing with company information when they exchange e-mails, phone calls or postal mail with any other party, and the company has the right to decide who that information can and cannot be shared with. For this reason, the company should also have the right to inspect all company e-mails if they wish to, for policy enforcement, or for whatever other reason. People should keep our private conversations separate from company e-mail systems, if we are so concerned about our privacy.

There is no violation of privacy with this new Finnish law, and neither there would be if the law allow companies full access to their own company e-mails. On the other hand, such “privacy protecting” laws are a refuge for damaging activity by harmful employees. The problem of information leakage in enterprises is more complex than what this Finnish law is addressing, but these “privacy protecting” laws for enterprise environments (in effect in Finland but also in Spain, for instance) only cause problems for business while delivering no benefits to anyone.

Disreputable business practices go unpunished

Ryanair lost a court battle in Spain against an intermediary travel agency (Atrapalo)
that was selling Ryanair flight tickets irregularly.

Ryanair has no agreements with this travel agency. Ryanair sells its own flights through its own web page, directly to its customers. The Ryanair website usage policy states that their website may be used exclusively for private and non-commercial purposes. Atrapalo was using automatic mechanisms to use Ryanair’s end-customer service, introducing itself as an intermediary, and offering Ryanair flight tickets to its own customers, thereby using Ryanair’s website for commercial purposes and thus clearly violating the website usage policy.

Even so, the Spanish court has ruled against Ryanair. Ryanair was right to claim that this travel agency (Atrapalo) and others (e-Dreams, Rumbo, Opodo, Bravofly, V-Tours and Tui) must stop selling Ryanair flight tickets. The airline should have the right to decide how to sell their flight tickets, and for this reason they choose not to advertise their flights on the global travel agency sites (Amadeus, Galileo, Sabre, Worldspan). If they choose to do it exclusively directly with the customer, without intermediaries, they ought to be allowed to. The Spanish justice system just denied them that right. The Spanish joke justice system is hard at work once again, siding with the criminal part (in this case, Atrapalo).

Any company must be free to choose how to sell or not to sell their services, and this court sentence rids Ryanair of any say on the matter.

The Spanish court order blocks competitiveness and productivity: Ryanair is one of the best run airlines in Europe and with the highest punctuality rate thanks to their business practices. The court orders Ryanair to accept piracy-like business practices of Atrapalo, regardless of the damage they may cause Ryanair’s business or its effectiveness.

It’s discouraging to see the Spanish press (here and here) taking sides with the illegal practices of the Spanish on-line travel agency. The attitude of the justice system and the press are two examples of the the many reasons that keep Spain well behind in terms of productivity, in Europe and worldwide.

It’s also very discouraging to see that the European Commission criticized Ryanair too for not allowing an intermediary to sell their flight tickets. As with last year’s language despite a pro-regionalism local Spanish government with Air Berlin, public authorities intend to tell companies how they should run their businesses. They ought to limit themselves to making public infrastructures and public services work, and to ensure the conditions for businesses to foster, but that seems to be too much hard work for them, so they rather spend their time criticising profitable and efficient businesses.

If the European Commission cares at all for consumers, they ought to defend the willingness of companies to establish a direct channel with the customer, even if exclusively, as Ryanair wants to do. Among the business practices truly damaging for consumers are redundant intermediaries in product and service delivery which increase cost, create little or no value, and introduce unnecessary complexity for the consumer. If a company wants to have an exclusive and direct relationship with its consumers, they should be allowed to. Ryanair is being denied this right.

Hopefully Ryanair will win their appeal of the spanish court sentence, and the similar court battles in France, Germany, Italy and UK.

Embarrassing European Union

Ireland and a few other European countries decided to ask their citizens in referendum to ratify (or not) the EU Lisbon Treaty. Other countries simply voted in parliament.

In June 2008 the majority of Irish said “no” to this treaty, while the rest of Europe voted yes. The single “no” vote meant, in theory, that the treaty was not accepted (officially all 27 EU member states had to vote “yes” for the treaty to be approved).

So… what to do when the vote is not what you want it to be? Just make people vote again, and see if you get the result you want this time! That’s exactly what the European Union proposed Ireland to do, and it seems Ireland has agreed to this “solution”.

With “solutions” like this, who needs rules at all? If the rule was that all 27 members states are required to vote yes, then the treaty was dead the minute Ireland said “no”. Maybe EU leaders were too optimistic thinking all 27 would say “yes”, but once they set that rule in the beginning, they ought to stand by it, or else resign from their positions. They have lost all credibility.

If we are going to have Ireland repeat their vote, just because some people want them to say “yes”, why don’t we have a repeat vote in Spain, for instance? Some people are not happy with Spain’s “yes” vote, and might like a repeat vote until Spain says “no”. If we don’t get what we want on the second try, we can go for a third attempt. Why not? Once we accept a second vote in one country (Ireland), why deny others the same second opportunity?

The European Union is embarrassing.

What members of parliament of all 27 EU member states should do, first thing in the morning when they go back to work tomorrow, is to establish a single electoral constituency in Europe, for all Europe-wide matters. A referendum about the Lisbon Treaty should be voted simultaneously in all 27 member states, on the same day, and there should be a single EU-wide result, not 27 individual results. The aggregated “yes” votes should be compared with the aggregated “no” votes, and there you’d have the answer of Europeans to the Lisbon Treaty.

The same system should be used for European Parliament elections. As a European citizen, I want to be able to choose from all people and parties running for a parliamentary seat, regardless of whether they are from my own country or any of the other 26 member states. I want them to campaign Europe-wide, and I want to choose among all of them, rather than being restricted to picking among politicians from my own country.

Granted, we’d probably see the number of members of parliament from a given country decrease and others increase. The government of the less-represented country may not be so happy about this, but that’s only because they oppose nature. If people are really free to choose among candidates from all over Europe, the resulting parliament would be a mere representation of the wishes of all Europeans, including those from the underrepresented country, because it means they chose to vote for people from other countries.

A few roadblocks may be on the way to implement such a system (language barriers, opposition from smaller countries, others…), but precisely the single Europe-wide electoral constituency may very well be the first necessary step to achieve integration of Europe’s resources and strengths, to get us all working together, and to erode (with time) the hard edges that cause friction in internal European relations. Unless, of course, this is not what we (Europe) want.

Back to GMT+1, waiting for GMT+0

Tonight (Oct 25 to Oct 26) is the end of DST (Daylight Savings Time), which has kept central Europe artificially in GMT+2, commonly known as CEST (Central European Summer Time), and we’ll go back to the usual timezone, called “CET”, or Central European Time, or GMT+1.

Along with central europe goes Spain, which however is geographically far from “central” europe, and thus we ought to be using a different timezone. GMT+1 is not right for Spain. At 7am there is sunlight coming through your window in Rome or in Zurich, while in Spain it’s pitch dark. At that time, it ought to be 6am in Spain, or GMT+0, the same time as in Portugal or the United Kingdom, our meridian neighbours.

I encourage all readers to advocate for Spain to change its official timezone to GMT+0 (also called UTC or UTC+0). This is what will truly save energy (the earlier in the day we can make use of natural sunlight, the less energy is required to light factories, streets, etc…), while also adapting work schedules to natural light conditions, surely helping people have a healthier life. More info on my blog’s Spain in GMT+0! page.