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Is Europe on a countdown to war with Google?

Taken on its own, the privacy showdown between European regulators and Google (s:goog) may not be a particularly big deal. Yes, it’s a serious clash — but technology companies and the authorities have argued about subjects like this for years. In most cases (though not all) the law and the real world end up working out a happy medium.

Whatever the result ends up being, the current situation is made trickier because it’s effectively two empires — one corporate, one political — trying to make the best of a fuzzy patchwork of policies. Europe’s data protection laws are a bit of a mess, stitched together as they are from a set of nations that have widely varied conceptions of acceptable privacy. Google, meanwhile, is now a sprawling company that is trying to federalize itself and its rules.

That’s why it is making the argument that simplification is what users want, and it’s what they expect.

“It’s about combining different the services that we offer,” Peter Barron, the company’s head of PR in Britain and Ireland, told the BBC on Wednesday morning. “When people use Google services today, they don’t think of themselves as being in one particular service, they just want it to work. For example, if you’re in your calendar, you might want your gmail contacts to pop up in that calendar so you can decide who to invite to a meeting.”

That is true, in part. But only in part. If Google’s new privacy policy as just about providing a service, that would make sense. But it’s not: it’s really about selling advertising, and that’s why regulators are concerned.

Beyond this immediate fracas, however, there is a bigger and much more important point. This privacy spat isn’t happening in a vacuum — it is just the latest significant clash between European authorities and Google. The tick-tock of complaints, investigations and actions is becoming regular enough that you could set your watch by it. And it makes it seem almost inevitable that the company is cruising toward a major regulatory intervention of some kind.

Here are just a few of the concerns about Google that have been voiced across European governments, at local, national and federal level.

  • Rulings that Street View invades privacy in countries including Germany
  • Worries that WiFi data collected for Street View breaks the law
  • Concerns over the length of time data is retained by Google, both at the federal level and in countries like Norway (which is not part of the European Union)
  • The Italian court case that saw three Google executives sentenced because the company failed to take down a bullying YouTube video
  • Official investigations into complaints by several small companies who say Google unfairly demotes them in its search index
  • A complaint by Microsoft that Google systematically blocks the competition
  • Concern over tax avoidance
  • And that’s before you count things like Android, which has left many of Google’s hardware partners in hot water.

    But before we start thinking that Europe has nothing but distaste for Larry Page and his cohort, let’s not forget that it hasn’t all been fire and fury. The EU recently approved the purchase of Motorola Mobility, a deal which it could easily have blocked or stalled if it was being merely bloody minded. That suggests that the relationship between the two is more complex than many appear to believe.

    Still, the sheer volume of complaints and concerns is impossible to ignore, even if Google prefers to take each issue on a case-by-case basis.

    And there is one crucial fact to remember: Google’s dominance in Europe significantly exceeds that in the US — it has between 90 and 100 percent of search share in most European markets. And that fact alone means that the two sides are teetering around a gravity well that seems to be sucking them both, inevitably, into a major confrontation.

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