It’s tough at the top

Legendary jazz singer Tony Bennett sang the great American song book at the Royal Albert Hall last week.

It’s fair to say the songs were a little slower than I remember and his range isn’t what it once was. But he is 90!

He can still carry a tune. And, heroically, Tony’s last song was performed without a microphone. The old pro did not deserve the heckle he got from a Saga lout: “turn the mic up, Tony!” Cue much ashamed tutting at the inhospitable treatment of our American guest. It was the talk of the queue for the men’s toilets afterward.

It was that kind of week all round for US-European relations. The European Union fined Alphabet (the artist formerly known as Google) €2.4bn and Bank of England governor Mark Carney’s apparently hawkish speech (it wasn’t) pushed sterling higher against the greenback.

Let’s leave aside whether Alphabet would have been fined if it was headquartered in Berlin or Paris. To be honest, the US has been quite keen to fine European and Asian institutions in the past. What I find irritating is that it appears to achieve nothing. In reality, a couple of billion is not significant in terms of Alphabet’s balance sheet, so how does this decision address the growing pains of e-commerce?

And whatever happened to “buyer beware”? Alphabet provides a marketplace and it has actually brought greater visibility and transparency to prices for goods and services. That’s good for competition, not bad! Clearly, putting its retail offerings nearer the top of search lists distorts this, but it’s like fining a mall owner because they own the stores closest to the front door.

Amazon’s shopping platform notifies buyers if you can buy a product cheaper from another vendor rather than using its Prime service. This may mean a lost sale for Amazon, but it still gets a cut for hosting the marketplace. Perhaps something similar could be an acceptable compromise for Alphabet.

So Alphabet may need tighter regulation on retail sites from which it shares revenue in the same way a broker has to declare if they are writing about a company that is a corporate client. This would deal with the issue. It would alleviate any suspicion about the motivation of fines and the ethical concerns about how the proceeds are allocated.

Of course, Googling has become a verb and, worryingly, it does have monopolistic traits. It has beaten all comers through – well – just being better. So Google would do better not fighting this decision, give the lawyers a day off, and instead work with the regulators for the good of its customers and also its shareholders. It would be better for its corporate image and its bottom line.

If you’re going to give up the microphone, it’s better to have the crowd singing along with you, otherwise the hecklers set the tone.

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