March 26, 2005

Europe's response to Google to be managed by... Microsoft?

The proposed European response to Google's library initiative got a lot of additional publicity after Jacques Chirac met last Wednesday with Jean-Noel Jeanneney, head of the French National Library, and Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, French minister of culture. Thanks to Google Actualités France, I've been following the story in various French-language news outlets.

Except for the news that Chirac is definitely on board, most of the discussion has followed predictable lines, but I was brought up short by the end of an article by Béatrice Gurrey et Emmanuel de Roux in Le Monde on 3/16/2005:

Dans l'esprit du chef de l'Etat, il s'agit de bâtir un "alter ego" au projet américain, avant d'envisager une éventuelle collaboration avec Google, pour ne pas discuter en situation de faiblesse. Le président serait-il prêt à s'entretenir avec le concurrent de Google, Microsoft, puisqu'il a tant de convergences de vues avec son président, Bill Gates, qu'il a longuement reçu à l'Elysée? "Pourquoi pas?", répondent les conseillers de M. Chirac.

In the mind of the chief of state, it's a question of building an alter ego to the american project, before thinking of an eventual collaboration with Google, so as not to negotiate from a position of weakness. Would the president be ready to make a deal with Google's competitor, Microsoft, since he has so many views in common with its president, Bill Gates, whom he has long welcomed to the Elysée? "Why not?", respond M. Chirac's advisors.

I don't want to encourage any facile Microsoft-bashing here. I often use Microsoft software, generally without complaints, and I have a lot of respect for the research carried out at Microsoft Labs. Still, the idea of Bill Gates being enlisted by Jacques Chirac to defend the world's citizens from the crushing domination of American culture... Well, words fail me, that's all.

With respect to this same idea, La République des Lettres commented, under the headline La Grande Bibliothèque Virtuelle de Jacques Chirac:

Cela semble cependant mal engagé lorsque l'on entend les propos des conseillers du Président de la République -- par ailleurs grand ami de Bill Gates, grand équimentier américain des administrations françaises, reçu plusieurs fois avec tous les honneurs à l'Elysée -- n'excluant pas de s'associer avec Microsoft pour mener à bien ce programme de numérisation contre la domination américaine. LOL (à se rouler par terre de rire), comme on dit sur l'internet.

It seems nevertheless like a bad beginning to hear the suggestion of the advisors of the President of the Republic -- in any case a great friend of Bill Gates, the great american supplier (?) of french administrations, welcomed several times with all the honors of the Elysée Palace -- not excluding an association with Microsoft to accomplish this digitization program against american domination. LOL (rolling on the floor laughing), as they say on the internet.

Um, guys, that would be the acronym ROFL, or else the translation should be whatever the French idiom for "laugh out loud" is -- "rire tout haut"?

Moving right along, Bill will doubtless be happy to learn that Jacques' advisors have concluded that the Euro/MS digital library will cost them more than Google has estimated for its effort:

L'enjeu culturel de ce projet est énorme, mais il est conditionné par la technique, domaine encore plein d'inconnues, qui déterminera lui-même les coûts financiers. "Nous pensons que Google sous-évalue le coût de l'opération, sauf si leur percée technologique est vraiment majeure", estiment les conseillers de M. Chirac, jugeant d'autant plus nécessaire une collaboration européenne sur le plan culturel, technique, financier. "C'est typiquement le genre de projet que le président souhaite porter", soulignent-ils. Ils admettent, sans en préciser le montant ni le calendrier, que l'Etat sera prêt à faire un effort financier pour soutenir ce projet européen.

The cultural stakes of this project are enormous, but it is dependent on the technology, an area still full of unknowns, which will itself determine the financial costs. "We think that Google under-estimates the cost of the operation, unless they have a really major technological breakthrough", M. Chirac's advisors warn, judging it all the more necessary for Europe to cooperate on cultural, technological and financial levels. "It's exactly this type of project that the president wants to carry out", they emphasize. They acknowledge, without being precise about either the quantity or the schedule, that the State will be ready to make a financial contribution to support this European project.

Meanwhile, the Elysée is not getting a uniformly respectful treatment elsewhere in Europe. Scott Lamb at Spiegel Online asks "What Does France Have Against Google?", and comes up with this (fake) search for {french military victories}.

Along with the obvious AFP suit, which is ironically designed to prevent Google's Anglo-Saxon outlook from being tempered by material from the French national news agency, Lamb also lists a set of three small trademark violation judgments in a court in Nanterre, which "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".

Given M. Jeanneney's concern that Google will present the world with "The Scarlet Pimpernel triumphing over Ninety-three... ; valiant British aristocrats triumphant over bloody Jacobins; [and] the guillotine concealing the rights of man and the shining ideas of the Convention...", maybe it would make sense for the Elysée to invest in some Google ads of its own, to direct searchers to right-thinking links for an appropriate set of revolutionary keywords? I don't think that any American or British courts will intervene on behalf of Edmund Burke and the Scarlet Pimpernel.

Seriously, as I wrote a month ago, I wish M. Chirac (and M. Gates?) well in their enterprise, despite some qualms, and I sincerely hope that the clouds on its horizon dissipate rather than thicken.

[Update: the backstory on the relationship between Jacques Chirac and Bill Gates includes this reference in Chirac's recent 1/26/2005 speech at Davos:

For large corporations and private financial organisations, it would be a magnificent undertaking to set up, under their aegis, large international foundations dedicated to the fight against poverty, in the same vein as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Let us give thought to the promising prospects of co-operation between private and public development stakeholders that such an initiative would bring about.

Chirac and Gates last met in November of 2004, on the occasion of an agreement between Microsoft and Unesco:

Microsoft chairman Bill Gates will sign a co-operation agreement with Unesco today to improve access to computers, the Internet and IT training in developing countries.

The Microsoft co-founder and Koichiro Matsuura, head of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, will sign the deal at a meeting in Paris, Unesco said in a statement. [...]

After the Unesco meeting, Gates is due to meet Jacques Chirac, the French president’s office said.

Chirac spokesman Jerome Bonnafont said the two men would discuss development issues including the fight against Aids in Africa and the work of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the billionaire’s philanthropic organisation.

Some other stories on the meeting are here and here. It's probably the recent memory of these stories that led Gurrey and de Roux to ask Chirac's advisors about possible Gates involvement. However, it does seem striking that Chirac went out of his way to mention the Gates foundation at Davos. ]


Posted by Mark Liberman at March 26, 2005 01:22 AM