Their service is used 200 million times a day, their combined value is an estimated $20 billion and Bill Gates fears them. Larry Page and Sergey Brin are the Stanford-educated founders of Google, founded in 1997, who are literally transforming how we use the Internet. Not bad for a company founded on a spelling mistake (the correct spelling is googol, meaning 10100).
Google’s mantra, “don’t be evil,” has emerged recurrently over the last month as Google, once the golden child of the computer age, has seemingly revised their philosophy. Recent events have confirmed it wields massive power; assumptions of how such responsibility would be handled rested on their benevolently passive reputation, but it is now demonstrating that ambition may be taking precedence over ethical practice.
Each time a Google search is conducted the terms are documented and can be tracked to specific computers via unique IP addresses. Google holds this information indefinitely. This compromise of privacy is not likely to have come to light had the U.S. government not subpoenaed this information. Google is hailing its ensuing legal tussle as one for the privacy of internet users. This is a contentious statement; Google’s behaviour suggests the contrary, that it cares not for our privacy but for its own; it has not become the fastest growing business of all time by disclosing trade secrets. The information Google possesses is startlingly comprehensive, a privacy timebomb waiting to explode, or implode; the mere suggestion of the subpoena resulted in an 8.5% decrease in market value of the company in one day.
Then came China. If information held by Google is not enough to illustrate the dangers of a virtually omnipotent corporation, it has now decided to discount beliefs on freedom of information by providing the Chinese government with a service blocking politically sensitive material. China has a notoriously repressive governmental regime: freedom of speech and information is severely restricted and this move has further hindered the (albeit deliberated) progress that many in the west understood to be underway. Under fresh procedures google.cn will operate within Chinese walls, thus complying fully with the government’s demands for amendment of information. China’s estimated 111 million Internet users and Google’s mission “to organize the world’s information… making it universally accessible and useful” presents an instantly perceptible clash of business sense versus ideology. One senses more Orwellian bowdlerisation than the utopian ideal Google professes to imagine it could implement.
European shores, too, are not impermeable. The Munich based car manufacturer BMW was relegated from Google’s machinery for an alleged scam intended to maximise visitors from the search engine. BMW promptly fixed this and were welcomed back into the Google family. As 75% of all web-pages are accessed through Google, it is a death penalty reprieve of the highest order. One cannot help but feel, however, that Google was exasperated more by BMW’s attempt to manipulate their “PageRank Technology”, rather than any effort to “deceive user[s] or present different content to search engines,” as articulated in their mission statement.
The last month has stripped Google of the ‘super-cool, squeaky-clean crusaders for good’ image, revealing a company disposed to compromise ethics for increased earnings, discarding valuable goals to enhance market value. Google has such authority and influence that it can contribute significantly to the advancement or suppression of freedom of speech and information; it can hoard data on millions of internet users that could be used to exploit ad libitum and even grind to a halt the internet activities of the largest automotive company in the world. Larry Page once said he wished to “change the world”- he never specified whether for better, or for worse.