April 17, 2024

Google Tries to Make a Name in Europe as Local Player

PARIS — Chiseled into the stone facade of the vacant Second Empire building at 8 rue de Londres here is the name of the French national railroad, a former occupant. Most recently, the site housed another conservative pillar of the French corporate establishment, the insurer AXA. The proud new owner is a company with a very different image in France, more bomb-thrower than bourgeois: Google.

Google, the U.S. Internet giant, acquired the building, around the corner from the Saint-Lazare train station, for an estimated €150 million, or $210 million, and Google employees are expected to move from their current nondescript Paris office by the end of the year.

The investment is part of a campaign by Google to win hearts and minds across Europe as it confronts legal, regulatory and political challenges on issues including privacy, copyright dispute, antitrust actions and taxation. The company is spending hundreds of millions of euros to try to demonstrate that it is a responsible corporate citizen and a valuable contributor to the local economy, not the willful opportunist it is often portrayed as in France.

Google executives said that their strategy had been formulated late in 2009, when they realized that their problems in Europe were more serious than in any other part of the world, with the exception of China, and could no longer be brushed aside with recitations of the company’s slogan: “Don’t be evil.”

“We were hearing from people in government, the media, in our industry: ‘You need to be more of a part of the culture writ large,”’ said David C. Drummond, the chief legal officer at Google. “We took these criticisms to heart, and we’ve been working to defuse these issues.

“We’re really trying to work with folks in Europe to establish ourselves as more of a local player that is investing in jobs, in facilities, our physical presence, and all the ancillary things that come with that,” he added.

Mr. Drummond said he had adopted the role of Google’s “chief diplomat” in Europe, meeting regularly with politicians, business leaders and regulators. Other top executives, including Eric E. Schmidt, the former chief executive and current executive chairman, and Larry Page, the co-founder and current chief executive, have jetted to Europe to make speeches and to dispense chunks of the company’s $36 billion in cash reserves.

Many of the investments seem to be tailored to align with issues of particular concern to local policy makers and populations. In Ireland, for example, where the bursting of a huge real estate bubble has left the economy in tatters, Google recently acquired, for €100 million, the tallest office building in Dublin, buying it from the government agency managing bad loans held by Irish banks.

In Germany, where Google is under criminal investigation over whether its Street View mapping service broke laws on data protection, the company plans to open an Institute for the Internet and Society. The center, to be set up in Berlin with an academic institution still to be identified, will study issues like privacy in the digital era.

In April, as German concern over nuclear power grew after the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan, Google announced plans to invest €3.5 million in a solar power facility near Berlin.

In France, where Google’s efforts to digitize books and other cultural material have been denounced as cultural imperialism by some critics, the new Paris headquarters will house what Google calls a European cultural center.

Employment is also a perennial concern in France, and Google says it plans to double its French payroll, to 500, over the next two years. Over all, the company plans to hire 1,000 new employees across Europe this year, Mr. Schmidt has said.

“We have been accused of doing these things sometimes only to clean our image,” said Carlo d’Asaro Biondo, a Google vice president who oversees the company’s business in southern Europe. But he insisted that the company’s motives were pure. “All of these plans are ways to show respect to local cultures,” he said.

Google contends that the campaign is working, with previously strident critics recently having softened their tones.

President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, once declared, “We are not going to be stripped of our heritage for the benefit of a big company, no matter how friendly, big or American it is”; more recently he quoted from a Google-sponsored study in a speech about the economic benefits of the Internet. When Google announced plans for the cultural center in Paris, Mr. Sarkozy welcomed “Google’s important investment to be made in France, in addition to the dialogue between Google and people who play an important role in the French culture.”

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=3599fabc654556e27908042c8c769dc7

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