Google HQ

Googleworlds - discovering the dark side

The world of Google seems such a fertile place, but its simple, colourful hemisphere is backed by a murkier side, crawling with troubled, critical users and vexed regulators, legislators and watchdogs. Can the two sides be reconciled?

The world of Google seems such a fertile place, bursting with creativity in its ever-expanding population of Web tools and services. But this simple, colourful, unassuming hemisphere is backed with a murkier side, crawling with troubled, critical users and vexed regulators, legislators and watchdogs. On closer inspection, and for all its brand perfection, Google's corporate remit is difficult to define. Can the two sides be reconciled? Indeed, does Google's world reveal the shape of corporate strategies to come?

Charting the forbidden planet

Love it or hate it, you can't ignore Google – and it certainly won't ignore you.

The first three quarters of 2011 have been an exceptionally eventful period in an exceptionally eventful year for many people living on planet Earth, but especially so for those from the corporation called Google. In a few months Google has been involved in more high-profile product launches and initiatives than other, longer-established multinationals experience over decades, and it has only just turned 13.

As a consequence, Google enjoys the kind of media coverage that other high-tech organisations would spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to secure. The mass media likes Google. Readers and viewers know the brand; for many it occupies an important part of their personal and professional lives. What's more, countless journalists use it every day for shoring up investigative reports or, more flagrantly, for filling column inches through 'churnalism'. Across every profession Google makes working methods easier, and for many users there's no direct financial cost.

At the same time Google's public relations activities can seem unorthodox: the company seems to prefer to break stories on company blogs and other unconventional sources rather than through established publicity channels. Indeed, Google can seems indifferent to its public image compared to its competitors, maintaining a largely self-derived view of its public profile.

Off-the-planet plan

At first sight the business deals and initiatives the company involves itself in seem almost capricious. One month it purchased Motorola's Mobility smartphone arm for $12.5bn; a few weeks later it bought into online restaurant guide Zagat. Commentators and market-watchers went into punditry overdrive. What did these deals reveal about Google's grand plan, its roadmap, its ultimate vision? Does Google even have a market strategy that extends further ahead than a few months? Do these deals form part of a jigsaw that's being pieced together in a manner contrary to most corporate practices – an alien orthodoxy that needs to alter the states of known business models, to create an atmosphere within which it can respire more easily?

There is something otherworldly about Google's activities, sometimes. Google's is a different species of corporate strategy, a genus that has insinuated itself into the established commercial order, and been successful almost in spite of itself. Unfazed by competition, it seems deftly to sidestep rivals without reference to them. Brandwise, Google exhibits more an ethnic identity than a corporate culture. Though it practices adroit and insightful financial management, the company appears to spend our Earth money like it was some token denomination of no intrinsic value.

In these economically straitened times it can even appear reckless; one wonders how often Google decision-makers have been asked 'What planet are you on?' Their celestial body has already been named, of course: author Randall Stross dubbed it 'Planet Google' in his 2008 book of the same title. Since then Google has revealed itself to be more than just a planet; it is a fully configured experience, a world unto itself. Over the last three years its axial tilt has brought its orbit closer – much closer – to that of the Earth. Google has moved beyond wanting to 'organise everything' that slogan wasn't enough to scope its ambitions.

More than just search

The corporation's driving principle is now more predicated on diversification. 'Google' used to refer solely to the search engine, but now a broad portfolio of sub-brands have successfully established themselves in their own right. The question is, how well will these sub-brand colonies coexist with their cousins sharing the same landscape? And how well will they be able to continue to expand without wanting to declare some kind of independence from the mothership, and without impinging upon each other's activities?

This 'Googleworld' has a bright side and a dark side. The former reflects its serial popular successes, its boons to mankind, its worthy gestures and laudable intents; the latter gives shade to activities that have drawn criticism and ire over the years, despite the Google's attempts to contextualise them as part of a broader strategy.

This had not saved it from some biting public criticism: in August 2011 it was accused of having become 'the 21st century's quintessential robber baron', with a rap sheet that no law-abiding company would countenance. Some Google initiatives gravitate from the light side to the dark side, and vice versa. Street View, for instance, was the butt of public objections internationally when it first started to publish images of city thoroughfares online. As the years have passed, reasons have emerged to reappraise Street View in a positive light (see below), although some people still don't like it.

Scientists of business practice are still exploring the elemental make-up of Googleworld. It has its own atmosphere and ecosystem, with fresh business units and activities bubbling-up like newly-emerged land masses. Longer-established continents of greater socio-political mass risk grating against the underlying tectonic plates of regulation and cyber-community opinion as they expand and diversify.

It's hard to discern, but there is some residual equivalent of continental drift – where core Google business engines such as search and GoogleAds will end up, and whether they will continue to form a common business model and rebound in new directions, remains a matter of speculation; but then so does much else about Google. To be sure, it is not all light and sweetness in Googleworld; one of its sides has something of the night about it; or at least, a there certainly exists a dimension to its activities that provokes antipathy from several quarters.

The users are revolting

People don't like its monopolistic position as search criterion arbiter, and five years ago Kinderstart.com sued Google because of alleged downward manipulation of the 'page rank' it assigned plaintiff's website (case dismissed).

Authors are unhappy about the cavalier way in which Google Library has peremptorily commenced scanning books – Forbes magazine recently pointed out that over the last four years, antitrust authorities have sanctioned Google more than any other company, calling it 'western world's most pervasive serial property infringer'. Google's stance on so-called 'net neutrality', and what was seen as its appeasement of China's restrictions on Internet search when it entered that country's Web space, caused protests.

There are half a dozen other aspects of its tentacularity that arouse just as much ire from concerned Earth dwellers, from AdWords' terms and conditions to the company's fleet of data centres around the world (greener, but also probably more active, than most similar facilities). E&T's high-altitude pass over Googleworld takes in both the enlightened cultures that Google has brought forth, as well as the shadier rogue states that have been the subject on international stricture and sanction.

The enlightened hemisphere

Google's Code of Conduct is based famously on its 'Don't be evil' dictum and, while the articles of the Code describe an organisation that aspires to being lawful, honest and fair in its dealings with users and partners alike, it does not take account of the fact that an organisation can still engage upon many degrees of questionable action before it gets anywhere near the 'evil' level. Much of what else it describes is standard good practice for any company that cares about protecting its corporate image. Google is less formulaic about describing the aims and objectives that it regards as representing what might be the unstated implication of 'don't be evil' – that is, 'be good'. Perhaps in Google's case, actions speak louder than words; it offers its hugely useful search tool, webmail, and office applications suit for no charge. This has proved a boon for individuals and organisations, and makes a contribution to respective global economies (its rivals' lost software licensing revenues not withstanding). Google itself is a significant employer, and its products and services help drive employment elsewhere. Its 'disruptive' influence on the business landscape has caused the established order to rethink standard practices that might have grown stale and unproductive. Google has made charitable donations to good causes, and financially supported a range of worthy initiatives, but its 'technology-driven philanthropy' is usually neatly allied to its products and services: Google Earth, for instance, assisting crises response in remote regions.

  • Google plans a new data centre in Dublin, saying that Ireland's cool climate is ideal for free-air cooling (Sept 2011).
  • Google Android users can explore the major buildings in the centre of London in 3D using Google Maps 5.0. Google engineers had to rebuild the apps graphics engine which downloads a vector-based description of the area and draws the map itself. This downloads less data – useful where mobile broadband coverage is patchy.
  • Google TV enables TV sets to offer Internet browsing, apps, search functionality, and to use an Android mobile as a TV remote control. Google TV is expected to launch in Europe, including the UK early next year. Arguably will bring Internet access to people with no access to PCs.
  • Google engineers test a self-driving car in California. It uses video cameras, radar sensors and laser range finder to detect other traffic. Google thinks the autonomous automobiles will help reduce traffic, and accidents. (October 2010)
  • Google says it will invest in cheap, clean, renewable energy to militate the massive energy use incurred by its global data centres. It has installed solar panels on the roofs at its Mountain View facilities. In 2010, Google reportedly invested $39m in wind energy.
  • Google supports fundraising to restore historic Block C at Bletchley Park, home of British codebreaking operations during the Second World War. In November 2010 Google had donated £62,700 toward Bletchley's bid for Alan Turing papers (August 2011).
  • Google leases a seven-storey building close to London's so-called  Silicon Roundabout . The facility will house a range of worthy activites, such as hackathons, training workshops, and product demonstrations.
  • The British Library and Google partner to digitise 250,000 out-of-copyright books from the Library's collections. The initiative is set to open up access to one of the greatest collections of books in the world. Google covers the digitisation costs.
  • Google Business Solutions enable SMEs to deploy standard commercial applications to support business growth with entry-level business productivity tools.  Getting British Business Online  offers free website for modest start-ups.
  • Acquisition of Motorola Mobililty for $12.5bn described as  either a masterstroke or the dumbest move since Rupert Murdoch bought MySpace . Google VP of mobile Andy Rubin insists that the commitment to keep Android an open platform abides, although the deal presents Google with a way to beef up Android's security (August 2011).
  • Google adds a security feature to its search engine configured to increase the number of Web page results that are flagged as potentially having been compromised by hackers (December 2010).
  • Google helps to digitise ancient texts by lending its expertise in document scanning to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. High-resolution images of some Dead Sea Scrolls will be available online for students and academic to study (September 2011).
  • Google claims that 61 out of 100 US universities named in the US News and World Report ranking of the top higher-education institutions across the nation use Google Apps for Education (September 2011).

Darker sides?

'Don't be evil':  Googlers generally apply those words to how we serve our users,  runs the official Google line,  But 'Don't be evil' is much more than that. It's about providing our users unbiased access to information, focusing on their needs and giving them the best products and services that we can. But it's also about doing the right thing more generally: following the law, acting honourably and treating each other with respect. It is surprising, perhaps, that an organisation that has established itself so strongly with innovations has not come up with a more original definition of decent and respectable corporate conduct than these opening words from its official Code of Conduct.

Google is inclined to ignore or dismiss its critics as by-products of historical circumstance, ascribing their discomfiture to the effects of the disruptions caused by the innovations themselves. It's not that Google has been actually 'evil' (as far as we know); it's the fact that the company has shown a lack of what might be called 'corporate emotional intelligence' in respect of assessing reactions to its disruptive innovations that's sometimes interpreted as insensitivity or even indifference.

Addressing the MacTaggart lecture Eric Schmidt's remarks in Edinburgh last August sounded a little bit like 'Star Trek's Spock expressing his surprise at human emotional response. Google has not satisfactorily reconciled the dichotomy that, rather than meeting a need, compute-intensive services such as YouTube are actually encouraging people to indulge in environmentally incorrect Web browsing and video streaming that is a carbon-heavy alternative to conventional broadcast viewing.

To be sure, Google's policies are to make its global data centre fleet greener, but this does not offset that fact that their corporate objectives condone practices that may well be harmful to the environment. On a sterner note, writing in US business magazine Forbes, Scott Cleland enumerated a long list of Google misdemeanours, ranging from knowingly and repeatedly violating federal laws that resulted in a $500m penalty payment, to jeopardising US national security when the company decided to publicly index and make accessible misappropriated Wikileaks documents. 'Over the last four years, antitrust authorities have sanctioned Google more than any other company,' Cleland claims; and over the last decade, Google in addition 'has become the western world's most pervasive serial property infringer'. *

  • A private detective claimed hundreds of thousands of companies that signed up to advertise on Google might have been deceived into paying for adverts they did not want. Lawyers acting on behalf of the detective launched legal action against Google (May 2008).
  • Google has a reputation of being one of the best companies to work for, but many ex-Google employees disagree. In 2009 ex-Google employees were asked why they quit, to which they revealed complaints about low pay, excessive working hours, management incompetency, lack of fringe benefits, and an over long hiring process via email.
  • Privacy alarm as Street View cars gathered the locations of millions of laptops, mobile phones, and other Wi-Fi devices. The cars were meant to collect locations of Wi-Fi access points, but Google recorded street addresses and unique identifiers of Wi-Fi devices, and made the data publically available. UK Information Commissioner compels Google to delete the data (December 2010).
  • Google's Buzzsocial networking prompts privacy concerns that culminate in  a storm of protest and outrage over alleged privacy violations  lawsuits followed, and Google became subject to Federal Trade Commission monitoring until 2030.
  • Transport tycoon Sir Brian Souter accuses Google of blocking links to his website appearing when users search for it. Google reportedly declined to comment on the claim.
  • Security advisor Dinesh Venkatesan warns of Google Android malware that can record telephone conversations on Android smartphones and log details of incoming/outgoing calls, and their duration, in a text file.
  • Former Justice Department antitrust chief Thomas Barnett who is representing a coalition of websites in a congressional hearing over Google, says  there is reason to believe that Google is using its extraordinary power to manipulate users and foreclose the ability of other sites to compete. If so, Google should be found to be violating the antitrust laws.  (September 2011).
  • Google-Vividown: three Google executives were handed six-month suspended sentences (in absentia) for breach of the Italian Personal Data Protection Code for not removing a YouTube video of an autistic schoolboy being abused (March 2010).
  • Evening Standard newspaper reports of Google UK filed accounts reveal that it was liable for 'only' £1.2m in corporation tax, rather than the £700m some financial observers suggest that the firm would have to pay if it did not legally divert a proportion of its UK revenues through Ireland. Satirical magazine Private Eye later points out that the Standard had earlier praised for donating £25,000 toward its literacy campaign (July 2011).
  • Google Earth does not measure distances accurately, Sheffield Magistrates court is told when a defendant accused of speeding tried to use its maps in an attempt to overturn a fine, as reported by the Telegraph (September 2011).
  • Search engines called upon to do more to stop hackers by implementing detection of unusual or suspicious search terms as they are input and executed.
  • Google chief executive Larry Page admits that he was aware that adverts for unlicensed Canadian pharmacies were running on its US site. A Justice Department investigation resulted in Google paying $500m in settlement of the case (August 2011).
  • Executive chairman Eric Schmidt denies that Google fixes its search results to promote its own websites. The US Federal Trade Commission is investigating the allegation.

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