Escargot? Oui. Google? Sacre Bleu

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu May 26 13:25:15 UTC 2005

Escargot? Oui. Google? Sacre Bleu

By Bruce Gain
Story location:,1272,67482,00.html

02:00 AM May. 11, 2005 PT

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

"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."

Wired News:,1294,67482,00.html

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