"Every site I've ever visited, every search I've ever made, every image I've ever looked at..."

 

The company based on the principle 'don't be evil' is now the most powerful in the world. But as its dispute with China over censorship escalates, does Google have ethical issues of its own to deal with, asks JOHN COLLINS

BY ANY MEASURE, the rise of Google in the last 10 years has been nothing short of phenomenal. The Californian internet company now touches our daily lives on numerous levels. The most obvious is as our source of information on the ever-expanding web – by some estimates, about 90 per cent of web searches go through Google’s computers.

But the internet Goliath has expanded its reach way beyond straightforward searches. Watch a television news report and it may be illustrated with a map from Google. Read or publish a blog and it might well use Google’s Blogger software. Your mobile phone might run Google’s software too, and later this year Irish consumers will be able to buy the first Google-branded mobile, the Nexus One. Gmail, its web-based e-mail service, is increasingly popular, while Google News, much to the ire of newspaper publishers, is increasingly the front page that people view each morning. When you watch a video on YouTube, you are on a site that has been owned by Google since 2006.

Google is not the only internet or technology company with far-reaching influence; Microsoft, Facebook and Apple are other obvious examples. But Google has been particularly successful because it has managed to find a way of giving away its services for free while still turning a huge profit. Annual results released on Thursday showed it had revenue of $23.6 billion, which produced a pre-tax profit of $8.4 billion.

Founded in 1998, Google quickly learned how to make internet advertising profitable. Its executives realised that displaying an ad while someone was searching for a term related to that product or service would be far more effective than the banner ads that dominated the web at the time but which were usually ignored. Such success has upset not just its rivals but media companies and others who see Google, which employs about 1,700 staff at its European operations centre in Dublin, as an aggressive young upstart who is impinging on their space.

“Traditional industries have struggled in the face of the disruption of the internet as a whole,” says Peter Barron, Google’s director of communications for north and central Europe. “Google is a disruptive company – we are committed to innovation – but we are also committed to working with publishers and businesses to make the most of the web.”

In the past 10 days Google’s political and economic importance on a global scale has been underlined by reaction to its announcement that it was considering pulling out of China. Google has operated there since 2006, but agreed to make concessions to the Chinese government, including censoring search results on issues such as the Tiananmen Square crackdown and the Falun Gong movement.

Last week the company said it was adopting a “new approach to China”. The move was prompted by attacks on Google’s systems, and those of other overseas companies operating in China. Hackers had apparently accessed the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. Google says it is no longer willing to censor search results, and if it cannot reach a compromise with the authorities on this issue it will pull out of China entirely.

“What’s clear is that the environment in which we were operating, in terms of an open internet, was not improving in China,” explains Barron. “There have been a number of episodes over the past year that have been widely reported on, in which people in China have had difficulty accessing services from Google and other internet companies, as well as the blockage of YouTube. That, combined with these attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered, meant we decided to take a new approach in China.”

US secretary of state Hillary Clinton quickly weighed into the debate, asking the Chinese to explain the attack on Google and other US companies. On Thursday Clinton delivered a major policy speech on internet freedom in which she linked censorship of the web with economic growth, saying: “Countries that censor news and information must recognise that, from an economic standpoint, there is no distinction between censoring political speech and commercial speech.”

China reacted by asking that the US stop making “groundless accusations against China” and complaining that they were “harmful to China-US relations”.

GOOGLE ITSELF HASbeen criticised for its approach to privacy. It retains information on what people have searched for, what maps they have looked at and what is in their e-mail accounts. As recently as 2007, Privacy International, a London-based human rights watchdog, ranked Google lowest of a group of internet companies it surveyed and said it was actually “hostile to privacy”, a conclusion that Google fiercely contested.

“It’s fair to say they take privacy seriously and are taking it more seriously again in recent years,” says TJ McIntyre, a UCD law lecturer who specialises in digital law. “They do engage with the community and are willing to listen to criticism.”

Protecting user data and not using it for overly commercial purposes is clearly in Google’s self-interest. “All we have is the trust of the user. There are no contracts which tie people in, and we are incredibly conscious of that,” says Barron. “Our focus is to benefit the user.”

But even if Google takes its responsibilities seriously, the China hacking incident has highlighted the risk of one company holding so much data.

While privacy advocates have been concerned about what Google will do with the data, the bigger issue is what happens if governments seek access to it or if political or financially motivated hackers get hold of it.

“Even if Google is completely benevolent, a malevolent force, either a government or a hacker, could change all that,” says communications consultant Damien Mulley.

Google’s idealistic founders – Stanford University graduates Larry Page and Sergey Brin – defined the company’s mission as “to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”. With just a fraction of the world’s information available online, Google has set about converting “real world” information into digital formats. For example, Google Street View has dispatched vehicles out to photograph streets and roads around the world for inclusion in its maps, while the controversial Google Books project saw the company strike deals with major university libraries to scan all their books.

Google guards closely its plans for future products but there certainly seem to be few limits to its ambitions. When asked about the source of its mapping data at a briefing in Dublin a few years ago, its global privacy counsel, Peter Fleischer, said: “We don’t have a satellite . . . yet . . . I’m not announcing anything.”

“What we are trying to do is organise the world’s information and make it useful – whether that’s with maps, Street View or Books,” says Barron. “Because that has not been attempted before, it has sometimes been controversial.”

AUTHORS AND PUBLISHERShave been united in their outrage over the idea of digitising the contents of libraries, such as Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, which receive a copy of all books published in their jurisdictions. This would effectively give Google a monopoly, as it would have the entire body of modern literature in digital form.

“Should a private, for-profit company have this degree of power over the world’s literary heritage in the digital age?” asks Fergal Tobin, publishing director of Gill Macmillan. Tobin, in his role as vice-president of the Federation of European Publishers, has been leading the response of publishers to Google’s offer of a settlement with copyright holders, but has not been impressed with Google’s approach. “This is a private, for-profit, anglo-phone US company which effectively has a monopoly on the world’s patrimony of books. You don’t have to be a phoney anti-American leftie to be troubled by that.”

Google elicits strong responses to its actions at least partly because it claims to be guided by the principle “don’t be evil”, which famously appeared in documents published in advance of its flotation on the Nasdaq stock exchange in 2004. The phrase has since come back to haunt the company, and executives such as Barron now try to downplay its significance, although, he has said, “we do take pride in trying to do the right thing and trying to behave ethically”. Some observers believe the company has been true to this ideal.

“The founders of Google believe that to be true, and the people who work there believe it to be true, and they act in accordance with that,” says Damien McLoughlin, professor of marketing at UCD’s Smurfit Business School. “It’s very hard to think of any instance where they have done evil.”

McLoughlin sees Google as being in the vanguard of a new generation of firms that are not driven solely by creating value for shareholders. He says his students aspire to work for the Googles of the future, which, for them, means firms that are supportive of Third World development, tolerant of different races and creeds, and helpful to family life.

In the current business climate, where scandals and corporate malpractice seem almost the norm, it can be easy to forget that this more ethical approach is not unprecedented. Ice cream maker Ben Jerry’s contributes a fixed proportion of its profits to good causes, Cadbury, informed by the Quaker beliefs of its founders, has always taken corporate responsibility seriously, while, closer to home, Guinness provided healthcare and housing for its workers more than a century ago.

Whether Google achieves the lasting legacy of these brands remains to be seen, but for the moment it is the most powerful and influential brand in world. “What will Google look like in 20 or 30 years, especially if the founders leave or are hit by a bus, or the company begins to believe its own hype?” asks McLoughlin. “But there’s certainly another company out there thinking how to take Google out. I just don’t know what they are called yet, but the next Google is out there.”