It’s been a difficult week for Google, which has been at the center of antitrust investigations and a controversial Italian court case. Is the search giant’s halo slipping, or does the ‘Don’t be evil’ mantra still hold true?
In August 2009, it was hard to move around Beijing without seeing an advert for Google. China was awash with the logo of a company whose motto is “Don’t Be Evil”, and the scale of the investment was a palpable endorsement of China’s vital importance to the economics of any global company.
Skip forward to January this year, and an official blogpost announced summarily that the censored results that China demanded from Google were no longer compatible with the company’s philosophy. Off the record, employees said the company would pull out of China imminently.
So did the search giant really decide to eschew profits in favour of a defence of free speech? Or did it realise it would never be the biggest search engine in China and simply cut its losses? The question that matters is simple: what does Google stand for? It’s launched a social network that made everybody’s address books effectively public, and has this week been in trouble in an Italian court for hosting (completely legal) videos of a young boy being bulled. Is the halo slipping, or do large companies inevitably find themselves in tricky situations?
To be fair, there can be no doubt that Google is alive to the fact that its business depends on the trust of its users – that means people must believe that search rankings cannot be bought, that their emails won’t be passed willy-nilly to governments or advertisers and the company isn’t using its dominant position in industries from search to video for malevolent purposes. There is a good business case for doing the right thing.
Consumers, however, are becoming sceptical about whether the company is living up to its Don’t Be Evil motto – a straw poll anywhere in the country will provide evidence of that growing problem. It is, however, of Google’s own making: like Tony Blair, they promised they’d be whiter than white, and then moved from underdog to leader. The practical problems of living up to ancient promises are thorny.
So as Google has moved from trendy west coast start-up to major corporation, so it has started to behave like a major corporation. Its engineers have solved problems computer science had long since filed away under “too difficult”, but the resulting services are now so popular the company must wrestle with European antitrust regulators.
Nate Elliott, principal analyst at Forrester Research, points out that Google has “always put itself on a pedestal – so people hold it to unrealistic standards. But the founders didn’t drop out of school to give back to the world; they set up Google to make money, and they have.”
In the process, however, the needs of millions of consumers have very effectively been met: Brussels’ bureaucrats may not like it, but the public votes with its mice every day, and Google is the number one search engine across Europe, taking up to 90 per cent of the search market. Protesters who say Google knows too much about us, meanwhile, can look at the company’s Privacy Principles: “use information to provide our users with valuable products and services” is point one on a list that also observes that transparency and stewardship are also vital.
And indeed that service focus is the key to Google’s success. But as Elliott adds: “There’s always been something of a dichotomy. Consumers have always loved Google, but competitors never have. Google is a business and when it can take advantage of its position to make money, it does.” Thus it is a massive business that, still, is standing up for consumers against other businesses. It’s hard to envisage a more disruptive business model. No wonder a forthcoming book about the company, by New Yorker writer Ken Auletta, is subtitled “The End of the World as We Know It”.
Even so, Gartner analyst Whit Andrews points out that “Globally, Google’s brand is one of the most positively viewed in the world. Yes, there are ebbs and flows in the way certain people view it but it’s clear from the company’s growth that the vast majority of users and advertisers believe Google is taking care of their needs.”
Back in China, meanwhile, protesters have set up websites asking Google to reconsider, and Google’s operations in that country have yet, in fact, to be altered at all. Negotiations with the Chinese government are continuing, behind closed doors. That means that, six weeks after the announcement was made, the champion of the free web is still talking to a previously hostile superpower. Sources close to the negotiations say there is real movement, but that Google’s position remains clear. Maybe – just maybe – the company will end up effecting a real shift in China’s attitude. So is Google influential, enormous, profitable, occasionally naïve and sometimes ruthless? Surely. But evil? Not yet.