Google: Going back to ‘Don’t Be Evil’?

Does Google's quarrel with China show that the web giant has rediscovered its guiding principles?

2010 may well go down as a historic year for Google. While it might be harsh to say that the company founded on a principle of "Don't be Evil' had crossed over to the dark side, Google's actions in the past five years have certainly seen it treading pretty close to the borders.

During that period, the company that once aspired to make the world a better place has fallen afoul of privacy campaigners, authors, media corporations and anti-trust lobbyists.

Google has been accused of tax dodging, of cultivating a big brother mentality, of trampling over copyright, and of attempting to dominate the whole software and services market, from office applications to browsers to email services and mobile and desktop operating systems.

Google's ambitions used to stop at organising the world's information. By the end of 2009 it sometimes seemed like the company had opted to just rule the world instead.

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This year, however, Google has already pulled off a blinding PR coup that sees it back on the side of the angels. Nor is its tough new stance on China an isolated shift.

Google is trying to build bridges with its privacy critics and win friends amongst the companies and individuals it threatened to trample. Has Google rediscovered it's Don't be Evil' mojo?

Becoming Big Brother

It's not that Google's fortunes have suffered with attacks on its reputation. With 66.8 per cent of the market in December, Google remains by far the biggest name in search.

Chrome has overtaken Safari to become the third most widely used browser on the web. While Google's Nexus One handset has been met with lukewarm notices, Android is steadily gaining market share, and uptake of Google Docs is respectable. Most importantly, Google remains by far the biggest player in the internet advertising market.

However, Google's public profile has undoubtedly taken some knocks. As Google and its range of software and services have grown, so have concerns about the information the company is gathering, and over what can be done with that data.

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As far back as 2004, Privacy groups such as Privacy International were filing complaints about Google over Gmail, and the way the service scanned incoming and outgoing mail in order to supply pertinent advertising. Personalised search has been another long-time concern.

While the company no longer retains user data for an indefinite period across the board, not everyone realises that Google still retains search information on its servers, albeit linked to an anonymous browser cookie, for up to 180 days, or that it does so even if you're not signed in to a Google account.

Google's AdSense network has come under fire for tracking user behaviour from site to site as a means of selling targeted ads, while Google's popular Toolbar add-on sends the company information on every web page you look at.

Both features can be manually disabled, but how many Google users are aware of how, or even why? Worse, until a recent upgrade, you couldn't even guarantee that Google Toolbar's reporting antics were disabled.

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Aggravating privacy campaigners is one thing, but Google also seems to have done its best to upset the man on the street. Last year the company had to remove scores of pictures from its Street View service after public complaints, while residents of Broughton, Bucks famously blocked the Street View car from entering the village.

Authorities and groups in Switzerland, Germany, Greece, Japan and the UK have also raised concerns about the Street View program, as IT PRO.

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