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Obama Says Europe's Aggressiveness Toward Google Comes From Protecting Lesser Competitors

"Oftentimes what is portrayed as high-minded positions on issues sometimes is designed to carve out their commercial interests."

Vjeran Pavic

Despite President Barack Obama’s recently strained relationship with Silicon Valley’s tech giants, he’s loyal to the home team when it comes to Europe’s more aggressive stance towards Google.

The European Union continues to hold out in its long-standing antitrust case against Google (while the U.S. settled years ago over the same issues). In November, the European Parliament passed a non-binding resolution to break up Google, after it made Google hide search results about people who want them zapped.

Obama said the European companies were sore losers and were using their governments to gain footing against American rivals.

“In defense of Google and Facebook, sometimes the European response here is more commercially driven than anything else,” Obama said in an extensive one-on-one interview with Re/code’s Kara Swisher*.

“There are some countries like Germany, given its history with the Stasi, that are very sensitive to these issues,” the president said. “But sometimes their vendors — their service providers — who can’t compete with ours, are essentially trying to set up some roadblocks for our companies to operate effectively there.

“We have owned the Internet. Our companies have created it, expanded it, perfected it, in ways they can’t compete. And oftentimes what is portrayed as high-minded positions on issues sometimes is designed to carve out their commercial interests.”

The president also discussed the ongoing issue over privacy and protection as his administration continues to agitate for the government’s ability to collect bulk data on its citizens, while tech companies want to maintain consumers’ privacy.

“I think you own your data, and I think I own my data,” Obama said. “I think we own our healthcare data, we own our financial data.”

However, technology companies often have their interests misaligned with privacy, for instance with advertising-driven businesses models where more user data means more relevant ads.

“I think this is an area where, ironically, sometimes I also have tensions with Silicon Valley,” Obama said. “Folks are quite keen on talking about government intrusion, but some of the commercial models that people have set up are fairly intrusive as well.”

These privacy tussles are really a question of transparency, Obama said. “Part of the answer here is people knowing ahead of time what’s going on. People knowing how their data is used. Much greater transparency in terms of the potential of it migrating over to some sales and marketing scheme of somebody else’s. The more transparent we are, the more customers can make a choice.”

And there’s no wiggle room on privacy when it comes to data about minors being misused, Obama said.

* Kara Swisher is married to but separated from Megan Smith, chief technology officer for the Obama Administration. See her ethics statement here.

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