“I didn’t think I would come to this conclusion – but eventually I came to the conclusion that more information is better, even if it is not as full as we would like to see,” Google cofounder Sergey Brin told the Reuters news agency at the Davos Economic Forum in Switzerland last week, referring to the decision to abide by Chinese restrictions. “It’s not something I enjoy, but I think it was a reasonable decision.”
What seems clear is that as Google starts to flex its muscle in more areas of the Internet and the international economy, it’s becoming harder for the company to hew to black-and-white distinctions – such as “good” and “evil.”
It would clearly be “evil,” for example, if Gmail users’ private messages were read by Google employees, rather than mindless computer programs. But is it evil to collect user data that helps the company improve its services? Or to bring more information to a truth-starved population like the 100 million Web users in China? Such thornier questions will only proliferate as Google grows.
Despite its wealth and power, Google is still a young company in a young market, notes Charles Ferguson, an investor and technology writer who profiled Google for Technology Review in January 2005. As a result, it’s been able to expand at a rapid pace without bumping up too much against competitors. “But they’ll get to the point where the incremental dollars they can earn from advertising will get them into fights with others more,” Ferguson predicts. “And in dealing not just with China but also with India and the Islamic world, I think they will encounter some difficulties.”
Google is unlikely ever to attract as much criticism as Microsoft, which, perhaps out of necessity, has taken a more ruthless approach to business. “With Microsoft it was extremely clear that their route to riches lay straight through the corpses of half a dozen other companies,” says Ferguson. “Google is in a structural position that makes it easier for them to be charitable. I think they’re going to have an easier time of ‘not being evil’ than almost any other company in the world – but it will become a little bit harder over time.”