The era of the megafine extends well beyond the banking sector, as amply demonstrated by Brussels’ decision to fine Google an eye-watering €2.4bn.
The verdict follows an even heftier bill handed to Apple last year, when the EU demanded that the iPhone maker pay €13bn to Ireland after deciding that its tax arrangements amounted to state aid.
While Apple boss Tim Cook slammed last year’s decision as “total political crap”, Google took a more measured approach with their fine, the consequence of a seven-year antitrust probe. “We respectfully disagree with the conclusions,” the firm said.
Behind the calm exterior, however, lies a growing concern in the US that Brussels regulators are specifically targeting American west coast tech giants.
The worries mirror similar fears on this side of the pond, particularly among banks, many of which have been rocked by extraordinarily large fines from US regulators. When word spread last year that Deutsche Bank would be asked to cough up $14bn for its sale of mortgage-backed securities in the run up to the financial crisis, many people questioned why such a punitive figure would be leaked. In the end the fine was around half that amount – still a vast number – with similar fines in the pipeline for several other international lenders.
So is there an element of bias on either side of the Atlantic? The nature of Brussels’ probe in Google makes it difficult to tell, given the search giant’s uniquely dominant position across more than one market. Some analysts argue that US tech firms are attracting Margrethe Vestager’s attention simply because America has produced the biggest and most wide-reaching tech firms – many of which, if we’re honest, have a habit of pushing rules to the limit.
Either way, the mood music is troubling. With TTIP talks expected to start again this autumn, and fears growing that Donald Trump could stoke a steel production trade war, now, more than ever, we need regulators to encourage cross-border competition. History shows that non-tariff barriers can quickly become the most destructive type of protectionism.