Europe's largest publisher accuses Google of creating a digital 'superstate'

Axel Springer's Mathias Döpfner said that the company's extensive control of personal data was more akin to the attitudes of 'totalitarian regimes'
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The head of Europe’s largest newspaper publisher in terms of circulation has accused Google of using its monopoly position in the digital sector to establish a digital “superstate” that places it beyond the reach of regulators.

Mathias Döpfner, the chief executive officer of Germany’s Axel Springer, published an open letter to Google’s Erich Schmidt in Wednesday’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. In it he admitted that his company needed Google, but that the internet giant was developing a business model that “in less reputable circles would be called extortion”.

Döpfner begins by citing Google’s digital supremacy as the operator of the world’s largest search engine, video platform, browser, e-mail and mobile operating system, noting that without the company’s online ads his company – and many other publishers – would never have made the leap to digital.

“Google does not need us. But we need Google,” writes Döpfner, adding that the company’s motto would be more accurate as ‘If you don’t want us to wipe you out, you need to pay’.

In the past, Axel Springer has been accused of exercising a monopoly similar to the one Döpfner accuse Google of maintaining. The publishing group, which includes Europe’s best-selling newspaper, the tabloid Bild, as well as the conservative broadsheet Die Welt, was frequently the focus of left-wing ire during the student movements of 1968..

Döpfner’s open letter was published as response to a guest column by Schmidt written in the same newspaper. Schmidt himself was responding in part to a longer piece title ‘Fear of Google’ by German internet entrepreneur Robert Maier, whose Berlin-based start-up Visual Meta sold a majority stake to Springer in 2011.

Springer and Google have been engaged in a long confrontation over the aggregation of news content by services such as Google News. Schmidt’s column in the paper on 9 April had welcomed a new advertising partnership between the two companies and criticized Maier’s ‘Fear of Google’ article as a piece that attacked “the entire internet and its magic”.

Döpfner denied that his fears were the stuff of conspiracy theorists and said that “criticizing Google is not the same as criticizing the internet”. He also noted that Google’s ambitions extended far beyond the web anyway, as seen by its recent purchase of drone manufacturer Titan Aerospace and its development of driverless cars.

“Google not only knows where we're going, but also what we do while driving. Forget Big Brother - Google is better!”

As well as Schmidt, Döpfner also criticized Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and accused the Silicon Valley elite of perpetuating the questionable mind-set of ‘Those with nothing to hide have nothing to fear’.

“The head of the Stasi or any dictator’s intelligence service would say the same thing,” writes Döpfner. “The essence of freedom is that I am not obliged to divulge all of what I do and that I have the right to privacy and my own secrets [...] Only dictatorships want transparent citizens instead of a free press.”