PARIS, France – A relationship marked by lows such as Freedom Fries and EuroDisney would seem to have no room to go any lower.
And yet: When U.S.-based Google announced plans in December to undertake the cost of digitizing the world’s books and making them searchable to the public for free, France called foul, with the country’s top librarian complaining loudly of yet another example of “crushing American domination.”
To some, the outcry smacked of just another case of misplaced Gallic pride; after all, Google plans to include French and other non-English books in its literary database. But a rapid response from bureaucrats in The Hague has sent a signal that the whole continent now sees Google as a threat. Last week, four months after Google’s announcement, the European Commission, which represents 25 countries, pledged 96 million euros to digitize all of the books from more than 20 of Europe’s most pre-eminent libraries before America gets there first.
The motives may seem obvious to Americans accustomed to mocking European pretensions; but, in fact, there is more to this than an anti-U.S. reflex. At its heart, the library face-off highlights a mix of anxieties – from historical influence to commerce to technology – exacerbated by fears that search engines are poised to become the great new gatekeepers of culture.
“It is very important to draw from the private sector to develop search engines for annexing, indexing and graphical interfaces that are not dominated by American technology,” said France’s Bibliotheque Nationale President Jean-Nol Jeanneney, the man who first called out Google and America and has been credited as the catalyst for Europe’s response. “We see the Google initiative as a trumpet call to take action.”
European pique at the encroachments of U.S. technology and values isn’t hard to find. The EC’s Competition Bureau last year hit Microsoft with a record $613 million fine and other restrictions over its Windows operating system monopoly. Last month, French wire service Agence France-Presse sued Google, claiming the search giant’s publication of AFP’s content violated copyright laws, in one of the first lawsuits of its kind. For nearly five years, former Yahoo chief executive Tim Koogle stood accused in France of criminal responsibility for auctions of Nazi paraphernalia on Yahoo’s website – charges that were thrown out by a Paris court only last month.
France is not without its bragging rights in technology circles. French communications equipment maker Alcatel continues to maintain a sizeable market share worldwide. Germany-based Infineon Technologies is a leading DRAM supplier and STMicroelectronics in Switzerland has successfully carved out a niche in multimedia semiconductor components.
Nevertheless, despite liberal investment in government-sponsored projects and industry subsidies, Europe is largely missing from the PC and internet revolutions.
It’s not for lack of trying. France poured billons of dollars in state aid into subsidizing Bull‘s operations for years, but the longtime state-owned computer and software group never managed to capture a credible share of the server and workstation markets against the likes of IBM, HP or other U.S. firms. France’s Minitel teletext information system was once a mainstay in French households – and was considered the country’s consumer technology crown jewel – but the internet has largely rendered it obsolete.
“There is a growing awareness in continental Europe of the technology gap, even with some of the very good technologies they have had, of companies like Google, like Microsoft, like Apple … which are presented as almost technology imperialists at the forefront,” said Jonathan Fenby, a former Observer editor and author of France on the Brink. “There is this defensive reaction: ‘We have to defend what we’ve got. We mustn’t let the Americans and the British get into this.'”
Google has been mostly quiet about the specifics of its own book-scanning project or how it will fit into the EC’s scheme, having blandly proclaimed that the two efforts will be complementary rather than competitive.
“The French National Library has its own (project), which is a prototype for what it is proposing (for the EC),” said J.L. Needham, partner-development manager for Google Print, agreeing that the EC had the requisite technological capabilities to put the books of its national libraries online.
In Europe’s favor, the technologies required to put books online are fairly accessible. Specifically, the project will require fairly ubiquitous optical-scanning equipment and search-engine technologies from the likes of Norway-based Fast Search & Transfer, which licenses its search engine know-how to Yahoo and AOL.
“Europe has all of the technologies together and everything needed,” said John M. Lervik, chief executive officer of search engine Fast Search. “It is probably more about getting all of the parties together and aligned.”
In an interview with Wired News, Jeanneney claimed that the EC’s online library project is not so much about France’s and Europe’s dependence on U.S. technology, but instead addresses concerns about the historical footprint that Google will make. If Google’s power remains unchecked, Jeanneney argues, it could unconsciously taint how future generations perceive and interpret not only the internet but the whole sweep of Western history and culture.
“The main issue of this project is not one that involves national pride, but it is necessary that the history of the planet (in the digital world) be communicated not only through an American medium, but one that is European – or even Asian – as well,” he said.
Despite the rhetorical outrage, Jeanneney and his colleagues at the Bibliotheque Nationale met with Google last week to discuss the initiative. While neither party would disclose specifics about how the two organizations might collaborate, Jeanneney did concede that the EC project might share its European-flavored content with Google.
Instead of the latest stopgap measure to counter American technological dominance, it’s even possible that Jeanneney has something loftier in mind, similar in influence to the majestic Bibliotheque Nationale overlooking the Seine, which former French President Francois Mitterrand helped to erect and leave behind for adulation long after he was dead.
“Today, journalists as well as educators increasingly use the internet and, specifically, search engines, such as Google, to do their research,” Jeanneney said, “which shows how it is essential that there is multilateralism, not in the military or diplomatic sense, but in how information is made available and distributed around the planet during the decades and centuries to come.”