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21st May 2022

Oettinger stirs controversy ahead of new role as digital commissioner

  • Upcoming EU digital chief floats Google tax idea and causes trouble (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

Recent statements by the next EU digital commissioner Gunther Oettinger on imposing a special tax on Google has drawn carefully-worded criticism from within the current EU commission.

Oettinger, in an interview with German newspaper Handelsblatt earlier this week, floated the idea of making Google pay a levy in compensation for using copyrighted content to draw traffic and generate revenue.

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“If Google takes intellectual property from the EU and makes use of it, the EU can protect this property and demand that Google pay for it,” said Oettinger.

But a spokesperson for outgoing EU digital commissioner Neelie Kroes has other ideas.

“It's not OK to turn a company into a punching bag and I wouldn't expect the new Commission to do so,” Kroes’ spokesperson Ryan Heath said in an email on Thursday (30 October).

He said copyright changes, which limit access through legal or price barriers, would face severe backlash.

“Changes to copyright will need to be focussed on maximising access to content rather than limiting it in some way,” he noted.

He pointed out that the commission's job is to solve market failures and enforce rules, not target companies.

He also cautioned against viewing search engines as something that steals audiences away from content providers like news outlets.

“There are many legal and social issues Google needs to address, and the lesson of the last 10 years is that tech companies would be wise to address them before new legislation and antitrust cases are started,” he said.

The issue is sensitive in Germany after economics minister Sigmar Gabriel backed top German publishing houses, including Axel Springer, in their legal action against Google for not paying when linking their news content.

The Financial Times reported Oettinger is mulling changes to copyright rules, similar to German law, that could include giving publishers the right to license their web content for others to use.

Oettinger said this includes defining what intellectual property is, setting out the rights of creators, and compensation for use.

Another problem is that Germany’s new ancillary copyright law aimed at making the Internet giant pay up to publishers is said to have backfired.

Berlin-based VG Media, a collection society, enforces the ancillary law.

But the firm is collecting money from all news aggregators and search engines except Google.

Google was granted a waiver when it agreed to strip down snippets to headlines. The anti-Google law is said to have instead further strengthened its market dominance.

German pirate party MEP Julia Reda in her blog warns against Oettinger attempting to reform EU copyright rules based on a similar German model.

“If that is the case, it would be the worst possible start for the long awaited European copyright reform,” she notes.

Oettinger’s diverging views could lead to a clash after he makes the official switch from EU energy tsar to EU commissioner for the digital economy.

The transition distinction was already used as an excuse by the EU commission not to publicly clarify Oettinger’s comments on Thursday.

Asked whether the Google tax is the German politician’s personal ambition or part of a larger plan hatched from within Jean-Claude Juncker’s commission, the commission declined to answer.

“All I can say is that Juncker’s commission will take up office on around midnight on Friday,” said the incoming commission spokesperson.

VW lobbyist met German EU commissioner

VW spent €2.8m on lobbying in Brussels in 2015. Earlier this year, it met with commissioner Oettinger to discuss "diesel emissions", even though it's not his portfolio.

Opinion

EU's weird uncle spoils the party

Oettinger's China gaffe caught the headlines, but his and his colleagues' broader disregard for European values pose a bigger threat to EU legitimacy.

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