VERBOTEN! This seems to be Germany’s default reaction to digital disrupters. A court in Frankfurt has just imposed a temporary injunction on Uber, the popular ride-sharing service founded in Silicon Valley. The case was brought by the German taxi industry, which argues that the service poses safety risks and flouts the country’s passenger-transport laws.
By itself, the ban of Uber would be no big deal. The company is enraging incumbent taxi drivers in plenty of other countries. But it is another sign of Germany’s growing hostility to American technology firms. Google (whose executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, is a member of the board of The Economist’s parent company) has been a particular focus for increasingly hysterical criticism. Mathias Döpfner, the head of Axel Springer, Germany’s biggest newspaper publisher, has compared Google to the giant Fafner in Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungen”. Newspaper articles refer to it as an “octopus” that keeps adding tentacles. When it emerged late last year that Google was operating a fleet of barges mounted with containers, speculation abounded over whether it was building a floating empire beyond the control of national states.
German fears may have political consequences. Sigmar Gabriel, the economy minister, has suggested the company should be broken up. And Germany is putting pressure on Joaquín Almunia, Europe’s outgoing competition commissioner, to reopen an agreement his team negotiated with the online giant in February that is supposed to make Google’s competitors more visible in its search service
It is perfectly reasonable to worry about the abuse of monopoly power by digital giants that rule their markets in the way Amazon, Facebook and Google do. Powerful network effects make it hard for competitors to keep up. If Google abuses that power, it should be punished. Mr Almunia has found it guilty of some specific abuses and reached a settlement. But there is no reason to believe that the more dramatic remedies that German politicians want—that Google should be treated as an “essential facility” like gas and electricity networks, or that it should be broken up—would benefit consumers.
Similarly it is legitimate to worry about privacy—this paper has criticised both Facebook and Google on that score. It is understandable that a society scarred by state surveillance under the Nazis and the Stasi should be particularly wary, but it should also accept that consumers hand over their data freely and get something back. And Germany’s digital phobia is driven not just by cultural memory, but also by firms that want the state to protect their business models and keep competitors out. Springer has more political clout in Berlin than any American mogul enjoys in Washington, and it has lobbied for Mr Almunia’s settlement with Google to be renegotiated.
Instead of trying to put Google in a straitjacket, German politicians would do better to raze the barriers that make it so hard for startups on the old continent to grow as fast as they do in America. Rather than lobby the European Commission to clamp down on Google, they should push Jean-Claude Juncker, the new president of the commission, to make good on his promise to create, at last, a single market for digital services. Cutting regulations at home would be a better way of securing Germany’s digital future than decrying innovators from abroad, just because they are big and American.