Google Unites Europe

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By Robert MacMillan
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Friday, April 29, 2005; 10:45 AM

France's decision to create an online repository of European literature got critical backing from five other European nations this week when the heads of Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland and Spain joined French President Jacques Chirac in asking for support from the European Union.

European media reported that a letter signed by the leaders asks EU President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso to coordinate the effort and, more importantly, cut a check to fund it. The letter comes after the national libraries of 19 European nations agreed to support the plan as well.

"The leaders of the undersigned national libraries wish to support the initiative of Europe's leaders aimed at a large and organised digitisation of the works belonging to our continent's heritage," the heads of the libraries wrote in a statement carried by the Associated Press. "Such a move needs a tight coordination of national ambitions at EU level to decide on the selection of works."

I first wrote about this idea earlier this month. At the time, the plan had what one British writer termed a "distinct Gallic spin," and seemed designed to wage a war of cultural defense against Google, that big, bad American search engine-company that got the jump on Europe by announcing a library indexing project of its own late last year.

Here's the set-up, courtesy of the Agence France-Presse: "Google's plans have rattled the cultural establishment in Paris, raising fears that the French language and ideas could be just sidelined on the worldwide web, which is already dominated by English. ... Chirac has asked Culture Minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres and France's National Library president Jean-Noel Jeanneney to study how collections in libraries in France and Europe could be put more widely and more rapidly on the internet."

Jeanneney has refused to characterize the move as aggressive or defensive, but this is the same man who said that Google's project "is the confirmation of the risk of crushing American domination in the definition of how future generations conceive the world."

After my first column on this topic appeared online, I was besieged with letters from Francophiles and French citizens who suggested none too gently that I wasn't helping U.S.-Franco relations by calling this a war on Google.

But what else is this? Jeanneney charitably called Google's Print project a "shock" that spurred Europe to action, but anyone who refers to the U.S. influx of entertainment and culture as "crushing American domination" clearly isn't devoting too much attention to "rapprochement." That said, I felt comfortable characterizing the French move as less than friendly. Some American readers with dim views toward the French thought this was my way of confirming the stereotype they have of those mincing, carping and annoying, well... French.

It's time to set the record straight.

What France -- and soon Europe -- is doing is a good thing. To successfully digitize and place online the collected libraries of Germany, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Spain, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Slovakia and Sweden is no small feat. (Latvia, Portugal, Malta, Cyprus and the UK are still on the fence.) But it is a public works project with the highest goal in mind -- promoting knowledge around the world. We can only benefit by bringing so much invaluable literature online.

That's why it is so strange that the European project was sparked by fear, a misplaced fear at that. France's reaction was based on the fact that Google is an American company. I agree that it is legitimate to worry that Google's interests are not entirely motivated by philanthropy. Yes, Google is doing a great thing by devoting $150 million to working with the Bodleian Library at Oxford as well as the New York Public Library and other repositories, but the company also stands to make a profit based off the ads it serves up when people use the resource (see the middle item on this sample screenshot Google provides on its site). Someone could argue that the online collection of world literature shouldn't be the bait that gets people to sign up for online dating or find great deals on eBay.

But wouldn't Chirac and the other heads of Europe be even more dismayed if the U.S. Library of Congress announced its intent to do what Google is doing? Or announced that it hired Google itself as a government contractor? Imagine the horror of a U.S. government-funded Google insisting on digitizing Marguerite Duras or Andre Malraux. It would make the student riots of 1968 look like Ravel's "Daphnis et Chloe."


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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