Google’s rise to the top of the tech world has been meteoric. Before 1998, there was no Google, yet only 14 years later, the search engine has unseated almost all competitors, from Altavista to Yahoo. And thanks to an innovative platform called AdSense, it redefined ads on the Web, and now rakes in $37 billion annually, and that number grows by billions every year. The company has been so successful, it has taken over entirely new fields of business almost overnight. At the center of this success has always been a promise. Google has promised us that it will “make money without doing evil.” It has consistently contended that it is a new kind of corporation; a good one. A company that will stand above the fray and do the right thing with the mounds of data we pump into it because it’s different than the rest. Google has always wanted to be that geeky friend you can trust to do the right thing.
Lately, things have changed. Google has been getting into trouble with the government and users on a regular basis and seems to be on a streak of actions that seem quite unlike Google. If it were Apple, Facebook, or any other company, we may not care, but Google says its different. It has challenged users, bloggers, and the world to see it as more than every other company. But are its actions living up to its image? Google doodles and the “I’m feeling lucky” button are fun and quirky, but do they represent the company that Google is today? In the sections below, I bring up many recent actions that have put Google at odds with its users, other companies, governments, and many others. Is Google still Google or has it become just another big corporation, out for its own interests?
Perhaps a bit more history would be helpful.
Since it’s founding, Google’s corporate culture seems to have mirrored its ‘good’ mission. Employees were encouraged to always dress casually and 20 percent of their work hours were to be spent on passion projects. It also showered them with high salaries and amenities like workout facilities, lavish free food, free daycare, free laundry service, massages, and perks of all kinds. Google seemed like the coolest place to work.
Letting employees have fun paid off. After Google began swimming in cash, Google Labs was born. New, crazy projects began to flow out of Google on a consistent basis, all of which were free and built to better the Internet or solve a problem. Gmail, Google Maps, Google News, Google Shopper, Google Earth, Google Docs, Google Health, Google Goggles, YouTube (purchased by Google), Chrome, and the Android OS are just a few of these types of projects. There were bombs too, like Google Wave and Google Buzz, but you couldn’t hold it against Google for trying and even a bomb like Wave had some extraordinary ideas behind it. Grander ideas, like self-driving car research and buildings that ran off of renewable energy only enhanced the company’s image.
Google has built user trust by offering almost all its products for free, and earned a strong reputation with developers by embracing open source and open APIs, which let coders use its services in new and interesting ways. Google also created ways for users to import and export information from its services. Meanwhile, Google’s search has continued to improve and stay cutting edge and has only one major competitor today (Bing).
When the company went public in 2004, founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin typed up a manifesto pledging that Google was “not a conventional company” and was determined to make “the world a better place.” Reiterating that message, Google pulled out of China in early 2010 due to the censorship policies of the Chinese government.
Cracks in the armor
2010 was a great year for Google financially and it stood its ground on China, but the company got itself into hot water on privacy issues related to Google Buzz and Google Maps. Though each controversy was different, both of them attracted the attention of regulators and lawmakers around the world. As a result of sharing contacts on Buzz, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) will monitor Google over user privacy for the next 20 years. Both of these issues seemed like innocent mistakes? Negligent, sure, but not ill intentioned.
The controversial net neutrality framework Google inked with Verizon, which seemed to concede that net neutrality wasn’t possible over wireless (cellular) connections, was another disappointment to many of the company’s supporters. It was as if Google had given up the fight early. It was a sign of things to come.