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Google: Beyond Good and Evil

With its “Don’t be evil” motto, the search giant strives to be the choirboy of corporate America. The problem: good and evil are in the eye of the beholder.

“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.

U.S. Representative Chris Smith (R-NJ), chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees global human rights, provided just one example of this backfiring in a January 25 press statement. “It is astounding that Google, whose corporate philosophy is ‘Don’t be evil’ would enable evil by cooperating with China’s censorship policies just to make a buck,” he said.

Still, Google has not been a stranger to controversy in the past. Its technical and strategic decisions have been scrutinized and criticized by both users and Internet cognoscenti for almost as long as it’s been a major player in the search business.

At times, for instance, Google has been blasted for placing permanent “cookies” on users’ computers in order to personalize some services; for offering a reverse-lookup phone directory that can be used to find a person’s address from his or her phone number; for filtering out too much or too little pornographic content with its “SafeSearch” feature; for hurting small companies by ranking search results according to popularity and frequently altering the way it calculates these rankings; for scanning and digitally indexing copyrighted library books without asking the permission of their authors or publishers; and for selling shares in its initial public offering through a complicated auction system that only big investors had the wherewithal to figure out.

But censoring its own services for consumption in China may be Google’s most unpopular decision to date. The company’s official justification for limiting its range of services as it moves into China – a potentially highly lucrative market, and one of the few where Google’s search engine does not yet dominate – are the same as those of many other information technology companies in China: that multinational corporations must obey the laws of the countries where they do business, and that some level of access to Western information and technology is, in the long run, more conducive to democracy and free speech than none.

(ADDENDUM, Jan. 30, 2006, 3:25 pm EST: As of this moment, a Business Week Online poll launched last week shows that 46.8 percent of 1,407 respondents think Google made a “bad move” and is “putting profit before principle,” while 46.5 percent say Google is right and that it “needs to play by China’s rules first. Reforms and Western-style transparency will follow.” - WR)

Yet Google’s commitment to its position seems half-hearted at best. By going into China, it’s in effect condoning similar actions by some of the same companies, such as Microsoft, to which the “don’t be evil” motto implicitly refers. And by expressing their misgivings about the Chinese venture in public, company officials seem to have opened themselves up to charges of hypocrisy.

“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.”

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