TCS Daily


By Sandy Starr - July 3, 2003 12:00 AM

For a long time, internet users and commentators had nothing but praise for the increasingly popular search engine Google. But today, Google tends to come in for trenchant criticism. Why?

Google started off when two computer science Ph.D. students, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, developed the innovative search-ranking algorithm PageRank. From 1998 onwards, Brin and Page built a company around a search engine that used PageRank, in conjunction with a variety of other closely-guarded algorithms. While the dotcom sector boomed and subsequently crashed, Google went quietly from strength to strength.

Google has formed lucrative partnerships with companies and organizations around the world, including, Walt Disney Internet Group and a significant proportion of the biggest commercial players on the internet. The search technology company Inktomi, once one of Google's main competitors, has seen its share prices fall in the face of Google's prominence, and was recently acquired by the search directory Yahoo! -- which, since 2000, has been a partner of Google.

In the face of Google's increasing commercial clout, Brin and Page have fought hard to preserve their company's grassroots ideals and benevolent brand. For one thing, they have resisted the temptation to make more money by taking Google public with an IPO. "That's a lot of work, and I'm lazy," Brin joked recently. But however much Google's founders want to keep the company's ethos pure, their commercial decisions are inevitably the subject of intense scrutiny.

Google has attempted to reconcile its conflicting needs of being profitable and retaining its user-friendly "untainted by business" image by introducing inconspicuous advertisements, carefully presented alongside search results according to how relevant they are likely to be to the user performing a particular search. Even here, though, strict and often eccentric restrictions are placed upon the advertisements that Google carries.
For one thing, Google has stated that it has a "policy of no ads that advertise sites that advocate against any individual, group, or organization." This policy is obviously intended to keep Google free of hateful or prejudiced content, but is in truth a bizarre criterion to apply to advertisements, when you consider that most businesses advertising their products presumably "advocate against" their competitors.

Besides, Google's moral defensiveness has failed to prevent people from resenting its success. As the Guardian newspaper puts it, "Google is becoming to the internet what Microsoft is to the PC". An entire website, Google Watch, is now dedicated to criticizing Google for its business and technology decisions, and states grimly that "there's a struggle going on for the soul of the web, and the focal point of this struggle is Google itself". The online publication the Register recently coined the term "Googlewashing", to refer to the Orwellian redefinition of words and concepts, as a result of the ranking of content in Google search results.

Taken to its logical conclusion, concern about "Googlewashing" -- which in fact smacks of people whining that the ideas they publish on the web aren't as popular as they would like them to be -- implies that there should be some form of regulatory intervention in search engine results, so as to keep preferred definitions of certain words and concepts pure. This is an Orwellian scenario, if there ever was one. Indeed, the BBC's technology commentator Bill Thompson has suggested that "Ofsearch, the Office of Search Engines" be created by government, so as to rein in Google's power.

But if Google's critics are misguided, it has to be said that Google itself bears a large part of the blame for the moral opprobrium it receives, because it insists upon being judged in moral terms. I was taken aback by an article published in Wired magazine in January this year, simply entitled "Google vs. Evil", which focused on the bizarre question: is Google losing its battle with the forces of Evil? Then, however, I discovered that the corporate information on Google's website invites such moral assessments, with a section headed "You can make money without doing evil".

When such moral terms are introduced by Google into the harsh reality of commercial transactions, this can only result in arbitrary decisions -- such as the search engine's policy of accepting advertising for pornography, but rejecting advertising for alcohol or tobacco products. Rather than criticizing Google for making specific decisions, perhaps we would do better to criticize Google for making its decisions on terms of moral piety.

Having said that, Google does deserve to be criticized for some of the specific decisions it has made. It has a history of silently removing content from its listings, following spurious claims of illegality brought by the Church of Scientology, by the council of the UK city of Chester, and by others. Also, researchers at the Berkman Centre for Internet and Society at Harvard University have uncovered various censorious practices at Google, ranging from collusion in the internet censorship practiced by the authorities in China and Saudi Arabia, to providing different search results in France, Germany and Switzerland -- where certain content is outlawed under anti-racist or anti-hate speech laws -- than in the rest of the world.

Google is in a precarious position in relation to international law. It is blazing a trail in a medium that defies national boundaries, where the applicability of national law remains, in many cases, ambiguous. So it is understandable that the company needs to watch its back. But it's also true to say that Google could have been more robust in its response to the legal challenges it has encountered to date, and that Google has missed opportunities to take an international stand for free speech and the universal availability of internet content.

Google's idiosyncrasy and relentless commitment to delivering top-quality search results above all else are admirable. Given the company's academic origins, and the way it has benefited from developing its innovations at some remove from the vagaries of the marketplace, its tentative attitude towards pursuing profit and its reluctance to go public are legitimate.

But inasmuch as Google's success means that it has to negotiate with the marketplace, it should be more open and realistic about the terms of doing business. Defending its decisions on the grounds of homegrown morality only invites people to hold it up to a set of pure moral standards that no successful enterprise could ever meet. If Google wants to be principled about something, then, as the world's most popular gateway to internet content, it could do far worse than pit itself against the growing tide of global internet regulation.

Sandy Starr coordinates information technology coverage for spiked.

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