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Growing Google searches for balance

21 сентября 2007

When Google agreed to buy online advertising outfit DoubleClick five months ago, it put a lot of backs up. US behemoths from Microsoft to AT&T expressed concern at the group’s newfound might. Antitrust regulators were alerted. Consumer groups complained. The deal was also one of the clearest illustrations yet of how Google has changed.

Google abandoned a potential acquisition of DoubleClick. At the time there were concerns that a fundamental part of the way the online advertising company does business – using “cookies” to collect banks of data on users so it can target adverts to them – conflicted with the much-touted ethical principles of Google’s founders, though that is not understood to have been one of the main reasons the deal fell through.
By proceeding with a deal in the spring, Google showed how it has struggled to apply its cherished business principles in practice, including its well-known internal motto: “Don’t be evil.”
Having publicly set themselves above others, its founders remain adamant their ideals will make a difference in the long term. “We haven’t had big companies before that had that kind of ethic,” Larry Page said recently. “I think we can be a positive force.”
That is not how some are coming to see it. The DoubleClick deal has amplified complaints that Google has on the one hand abused its users – invading their data privacy as well as adulterating search results with increased advertising – and on the other trampled over potential business partners.
Former executives and other observers argue that the increasingly complex nature of Google’s activities, particularly as it moves into new markets such as the one where DoubleClick operates, is forcing it to adapt and in some cases make compromises with its founding principles.
Facing growing numbers of commercial rivals and legal adversaries over copyright and other issues, it is not uncommon these days to hear comparisons to a company that many people in Silicon Valley love to hate: Microsoft.
In part, this is about image. “As you get more powerful, it’s natural for people to think this way,” said Mr Page.
But the backlash has substance, too. “When you’re a grown-up company,” says David Yoffie, a professor at Harvard Business School, “ ‘Don’t be evil’ is too simplistic. You have to evolve it and develop it.”
Google’s decision early last year to launch a censored search engine in China became an early lightning rod, since its stance appeared so clearly at odds with its self-declared mission – to make “the world’s information universally accessible and useful”.
Even some opponents of the decision concede it is hard to criticise Google over it. “I think reasonable, and ethical, people can disagree on which path is best to take [when dealing with China],” says Jonathan Zittrain, professor of internet governance and regulation at Oxford University, who was personally opposed to the move.
Nonetheless, there is growing evidence that Google’s nebulous claims to ethical superiority are backfiring – antagonising, in particular, other companies who see no basis for them, and who find they conflict with their own business interests.
“I think they have a view that what’s good for Google is good for the world,” snaps one business partner. “Every nation state reaches that conclusion at some point.”
An executive who has worked closely with Google’s most important business partners, adds: “I absolutely think their heart’s in the right place, but they’re trying to apply this [‘Don’t be evil’ principle] to increasingly difficult business situations.” As Google grows by acquisition, the challenges multiply.
Google’s $1.65bn purchase of the YouTube video-clip website last year encapsulates the tension between Google’s anti-establishment principles and its new-found status at the heart of the big-business establishment, with the frequent posting of copyrighted music, sport and film by the site’s users causing friction with media groups worldwide.
Stanford law professor Larry Lessig still sees the group more as saint than sinner. “Google has taken aggressive decisions to defend the . . . rights that the law allows them,” he says. “It was in some senses a public service to engage in these fights.”
But an executive at one big media company counters: “If they’re testing the limits of copyright, they’ve gone over the line and now they’re trying to get back.”
To its critics, the YouTube deal confirmed Google’s disregard for the rights of media owners. Internet companies cannot be sued for posting content that infringes copyright, as long as they respond promptly to requests to remove it – though Viacom, which has sued YouTube, argues these protections do not apply.
The company has spent much of this year developing a “digital fingerprinting” system to try to make it easier to identify copyrighted material. Opponents claim, though, that it has deliberately dragged its feet over the technology – and also that the work on fingerprinting is an admission that Google has not done enough up to now to fulfil its legal responsibilities.
Google itself insists that resolving the disputes is a priority. “I think there’s a huge incentive for Google and YouTube to get this right,” says Nigel Jones, Google’s chief lawyer in Europe. Such disputes are not just about the risk of getting sued. Unresolved, they could disrupt the future development of an industry that looks likely to rely increasingly on collaboration between internet operators like Google and incumbent media groups. “If potential partners aren’t happy with our progress, we won’t get the best content available,” says Mr Jones.
The other big row to engulf Google, over cookies, was also triggered by an acquisition, that of DoubleClick.
For any company claiming the ethical high ground, decisions about advertising sales were always going to be knotty. From the outset, Mr Page and co-founder Sergey Brin worried that advertising in any form could undermine the integrity of their work. In the academic paper where they first discussed the outline of their novel approach to internet search, they warned: “The goals of the advertising business model do not always correspond to providing quality search for users.”
For the young, idealistic, engineering-driven company they had created, “Don’t be evil” was a slogan that served a useful purpose in signaling that they were not about to make compromises as they looked for ways to make money, according to one Google official.
A small number of cases that have thrown a harsh light on the practices of some members of its salesforce appear to justify that early caution. Earlier this year, two Google salesmen antagonised some of the biggest media companies by actively recommending the search engine’s advertising system for use by websites that make money by distributing pirated content.
More recently, an over-zealous advertising rep wrote on a Google blog that advertising on the search engine could be a useful vehicle for interest groups seeking to counter criticism of the US healthcare system made by filmmaker Michael Moore.
Google executives deny that instances like these point to any broader conflicts between its advertising practices and its core values. “I don’t think there’s a trend here,” says Nikesh Aurora, head of Google’s European operations. “There are isolated cases.”
Yet Google’s rapid expansion, which has led to a sharp increase in its rate of hiring, seems likely to put a strain on its traditional way of inculcating its values.
“We try not to have too many controls,” says Mr Aurora. “People will do things that they think are in the interests of the company. We want them to understand the values of the firm, and interpret them for themselves.”
Google’s ambitious push into new online markets, meanwhile, has caused friction with even its closest allies, adding to suspicions about some of its motives.
In one notable instance in 2004, according to two people close to the situation, Google failed to deal openly with a looming clash of interests with AOL, at the time its most important business partner.
According to these people, Jonathan Miller, head of AOL at the time, had been personally assured by senior Google executives that they had no plans to launch a rival web-based e-mail product to AOL’s own service.
Weeks later, Mr Miller received a phone call from Eric Schmidt, Google’s chief executive, to warn him that the next day Google would be unveiling its Gmail service – an about–turn that made him “furious” and left the impression that Google was willing to “ride roughshod over its partners”, said one person close to the situation.
One business partner who has faced conflicts like this, attributes Google’s behaviour more to error than arrogance. Strains on its internal organisation, along with its highly decentralised approach to developing products, help explain how misunderstandings like this occur, this person says.
Google’s rapid growth, company executives admit, meant that for a long time it had too few employees to be able to talk to all the media companies that were worried about the impact of its growing power on their businesses. This just fed suspicions that Google, confident in its intellectual superiority, had an arrogant disregard for others.
Google’s expansion into new markets has left even some of its closest allies decidedly wary. “You don’t know what’s inside the box of chocolates,” one partner says of Google’s many new product initiatives.
A senior Google executive gives short shrift to such complaints. The media industry has traditionally accommodated relationships where companies are both partners and rivals, this person says. This is not an issue of questionable ethics: “It’s considered business.”
Meanwhile, Mr Schmidt has made it one of his main missions over the past year to build better relations with business partners.
Tensions like these could be nothing compared to what lies ahead. The implications of the company’s ambition, to bring information to everyone everywhere, are just coming into focus.
Google is unabashed about the extent of its aims. It is in the process of building a massive global computing platform capable of absorbing vast amounts of data. Recently it extended its mission to include “applications” – the clearest indication yet that it wants to assume the same role on the internet that Microsoft has played with the PC when it comes to providing the basic tools computer users rely on in their everyday lives.
These ambitions will inevitably lead to a backlash, Mr Page warned shareholders at this year’s annual meeting. “The scale of our opportunity is very, very large,” he said. “We need to scale to meet that opportunity. One of the impacts is that we will cause traffic in this area.”
Translation: as Google becomes the conduit for much of the world’s information, and the tools for manipulating it, it will inevitably feed many more commercial rivalries and public suspicions about its motives. What meaning will there be by then in the slogan: “Don’t be evil”?

Источник: Financial Times

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