“Don’t be evil.” It’s the mantra that search giant Google adopted almost ten years ago, when it decided to take on Yahoo and others in the search wars. Today, its strategy and technology appear to have won. Everyone uses Google. It’s the de facto leader in search – indeed, “Google” has become the verb for the act of searching on the Internet.
Yet nowadays, everyone seems to have a gripe, or at least a grumble, about Google.
Like any large business – and, make no mistake, with its nearly $52 billion market cap and $7 billion in cash reserves, the Mountain View, CA-based company is one of the largest media entities in the world – Google has sometimes come under criticism. In Google’s case, the complaints are often about the very practices that have made it such a valuable online tool, such as the way it scans the e-mail messages of Gmail users in order to serve up relevant ads.
But as the company has extended its ambitions into so many parts of the digital world – from comparison shopping to blogging and video downloads – it’s finding itself more and more frequently at the center of much larger political and ethical debates – and under attack from all sides.
Google’s decision last week to launch a specialized version of its services in China – minus blogging and e-mail tools, not to mention search results that Chinese government officials might deem subversive – may be most damaging to its do-gooder image.
Not surprisingly, Google gained the backing of other companies, such as Microsoft, who would also like to bring information services to China, and who see acceding to censorship as a lesser evil.
But it was doused in criticism from human rights groups. Amnesty International called the move “the latest in a string of examples of global Internet companies caving in to pressure from the Chinese government.” Reporters Without Borders said the launch of Google.cn was “a black day for freedom of expression in China.” Some observers have even called for a Google divestment campaign. “Everyone who cares about the free-flow of information, about democracy in China, in fact about democracy anywhere, should start selling their Google stock,” writes novelist, screenwriter, and blogger Roger L. Simon.
How quickly things change. Just a week earlier, Google was winning plaudits from civil libertarians for not caving in to demands for data on users’ search behaviors from the U.S. Department of Justice, which wants to use the data to revive a 1998 online pornography law struck down two years ago by the U.S. Supreme Court. (Federal officials, who are preparing to defend the constitutionality of the Child Online Protection Act in a federal court in Pennsylvania, say they need records of a week’s worth of Google search queries and 1 million random Web addresses in order to show that minors have easy access to Internet porn.)
Yet even that decision by Google led to public-relations problems, since many Internet users were surprised and angered when they learned from coverage of the dispute that Google keeps records of old searches, and that these searches could conceivably be traced back to an individual’s computer.
In short, Google’s business bears so directly on key hot-button issues today – privacy, free speech, intellectual property rights – that no matter what the company does, it will likely offend someone. What’s more, by publicizing such a high-minded motto, “Don’t be evil” – the phrase even appeared in the company’s SEC filings before its initial public offering in 2004 – Google has given critics a weapon to throw back at it every time it strays across someone’s ethical boundary.