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Originally published in Der Spiegel magazine.

What Does France Have Against Google?

A string of lawsuits and a fierce debate over its digital library project have turned Google into a symbol of cultural imperialism in France. Is it all mere coincidence, or does the land of "liberte, egalite, fraternite" have it in for the company whose mission is so decidedly global?

Maybe it’s revenge for the fact that the Internet sent Minitel, an early French network service, the way of the Betamax tape – into the technology graveyard. Or possibly, it has something to do with that inflammatory Google parody showing a faux-search for “French military victories” that came up with zero results (“Did you mean: French military defeats?”). Whatever the reason, Google, the world’s largest search engine, has been taking a beating lately in France, legally and culturally. Between a series of lawsuits and recent French furor over Google’s plans to digitize some of the world’s largest library collections, things are looking tres mauvais for the company in France. A recent phrase born in the French press, “omnigooglization,” has even come to be shorthand for America’s digital-culture imperialism, stirring old fears of waning French influence reminiscent of recent political struggles. Is Google the new Iraq – or just the new Disney?

The battle began in October, when a court in Nanterre, a city just west of Paris, fined Google $75,000 for trademark violation of a French online tour operator called Bourse des Vols. Several similar cases have followed, with the court finding in favor of Le Meridien hotels in mid-December, and on February 4 awarding chichi designer Louis Vuitton $250,000 in its case against Google. The court, in all three suits, found that the practice of letting competitors bid to have their ads appear when keywords containing trademarked words or phrases came up was a violation of trademark law. For example, handbag producers were able to pay to ensure their ads would pop up when someone using Google performed a search for Louis Vuitton.

Victor Hugo or Mark Twain?

Then, last week, a pincer movement: First, on Wednesday, President Jacques Chirac met with French Culture Minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres and the head of the National Library, Jean-Noel Jeanneney, to ask them to “analyze the conditions under which the collections of the great libraries in France and Europe could be put more widely and more rapidly on the Internet.” The plan is a direct response to Google’s current pet project: putting the collections of some of the world’s best libraries online. In other words, they are taking close to 15 million works from collections at Harvard, Stanford, Oxford and the New York Public Library and creating a virtual library. While these great collections do contain non-English works, France is worried that – yet again – English prose and bias will dominate and France’s bon mots will, helas, become but quaint oddities. In December, French library guru Jeanneney said it would “deleterious and detestable” for the image of France if the most popular texts about the French Revolution were written by native English speakers.

As such, he is determined to one-up Google and create a searchable French library. You can bet Victor Hugo will appear more prominently than Mark Twain. The move is vaguely reminiscent of the much-scoffed at radio quota law France passed in 1994 that requires at least 40 percent of what’s on French radio be in French. France also has similarly strict laws to defend its film and publishing industries from the anglo-onslaught. In truth, France does have its own mini virtual library called Gallica which has about 80,000 French-chosen works available online. The project, however, is but a David compared to the Google Goliath.

Amid all the hubbub, one thing is certain: Google has managed to create a knee-jerk reaction among the French. When it first announced the digital library project last December, Jeanneney immediately wrote a blistering attack in the daily newspaper Le Monde, calling it “confirmation of the risk of crushing American domination in the way future generations conceive the world.”

Also last week, another French company took aim at Google, filing suit against its popular news service, an aggregator that pulls headlines, images, and short introductions to news stories from across the globe. The French news service Agence France-Presse (AFP) is claiming $17.5 million in damages, alleging that by including AFP’s copyrighted material on the Google News Web site, the American company has essentially stolen its material. Like most news services, AFP charges a subscription fee to the 600 online news outlets that run its stories (the company’s primary client is the French government). On Wednesday, Google announced it was removing AFP content from its news site. “Even if they do remove it all, it wouldn’t change our case,” says AFP’s lawyer, Joshua Kaufman.

Critical time for Google

The lawsuit comes at a critical time for Google in Europe. According to Forrester Research, the European search engine advertising market will grow 65 percent in 2005, and the French lawsuits threaten to cut into the company’s ability to capitalize on the growth in the French sector.

But Google is certainly no stranger to lawsuits or bad press. An American insurance agency, Geico, sued Google and Yahoo!-offshoot Overture last May over similar trademark issues. And in December, the American Chemical Society filed a lawsuit against Google that alleged its Google Scholar search feature, which searches academic databases, constituted “trademark infringement and unfair competition.” The Geico lawsuit, however, ultimately went in Google’s favor, as have several other trademark cases in the United States.

Why, then, has Google had such bad luck in France? Google spokeswoman Myriam Boublil says, “French law is just very protective of trademarks.” It’s true that the French legal code does much more to protect brands than does US law (or German: similar suits have been dismissed within the last year). But that doesn’t explain the built up cultural tension over Google’s library plans. France has a long history of protecting its culture from American influence, and where there was once Disney to fight against, there is now Google. The French press is slowly turning Google into a yet another American monster – a headline in the left-leaning Liberation over the weekend dubbed Google “the new ogre of literature.”

As for the tension over digital libraries, Boublil says that “Europe must ultimately do the same thing, and we are really very supportive. We don’t view it as if it’s a war.” Google may not, but it’s clear the French may see it that way.

This article originally appeared on March 25, 2005, in the English-language Web site of Der Spiegel magazine.

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