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

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

There is, of course, some debate over Google's motives. As many commentators have pointed out, Google's announcement can be seen as a handy justification for a withdrawal from the one market where it doesn't reign supreme: China is responsible for less than one per cent of Google's revenue, and local search engine Baidu has approximately 58.4 per cent of the Chinese market in comparison to Google's 35.6 per cent.

What's more, Google's shareholders are more likely to be alarmed over state-sponsored attacks on Google's IP and user data than they are keen to maintain a presence in China. After all, who wants to trust Google Apps, Gmail or Google Wave if you can't trust Google to keep your data safe.

Yet there are indications that the days of Don't be Evil' are back. Google vice president David Drummond told the DLD conference in Munich that "We were always uncomfortable with China having censored our search results We thought by being there we could be a force of openness. In fact, that has not happened. Things have gotten tighter."

Or, as Patricio Robles, an analyst for the New York-based eConsultancy told us: "There have been reports that Google co-founder Sergey Brin was always uneasy about what the company was doing in China and that he played a big role in Google's decision."

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All the same, as Robles notes, one motive might not rule out another. "Icertainly believe that there are competing interests within Google, so this is not likely a black and white issue. Brin may have pushed for action on China on ideological grounds, but I also think that by forcing a public showdown with the Chinese government, Google is trying to see if it can renegotiate the rules of the game."

Certainly, while Eric Schmidt keeps watch of the bottom line, there seems to be a move towards repositioning Google as a global force for good.

Privacy is one area where the company is keen to reaffirm a moral stance. In November last year it unveiled Google Dashboard, a service that summarises the data stored in a user's Google account, along with quick links to the preferences that control the relevant personal settings.

On 27 January, Google followed this by clearly stating the five privacy principles which had, Google claimed, always guided the company, and which would guide all future decisions. Google promised that it would "develop products that reflect strong privacy standards and practices", that it would "make the collection of personal information transparent, and that it would give users meaningful choices to protect their privacy".

Finally, Google promised it would "be a responsible steward of the information we hold." Google has indicated that these principles will be reflected in new initiatives in the year to come.

The question is to what extent such pronouncements represent the real guiding policy in Google, or to what extent they're a sop to the privacy lobby. "I think Google is such a large company and collects so much data that it's hard to call its position on privacy 'coherent'," claimed Robles. "Sure it has an official privacy policy but what management really thinks about privacy in general is not so clear."

Privacy parry?

It's clear that Google will continue to collect data and use it to boost the effectiveness of both its search and advertising products. Some will argue that surrendering this information to Google's care is the price you pay for using Google's services.

Others will argue that that price is too high, and we won't know how high until it all goes wrong. "I would argue that there are plenty of valid reasons to be concerned about Google and privacy," added Robles, "but at the same time, a lot of the criticisms we hear are overblown or exaggerated because much of what Google does is look at aggregated data... One would hope that over time Google will balance its desire to collect as much data that might be useful with a more thoughtful, common sense analysis of what data has tangible importance."

Whatever motivates Google's 2010 attitude, there's no question that a more open and honest approach about its acquisition of user data is a good thing, or that Google's stand against China will provoke debate about how other Western companies do business there, and the compromises being made when they do.

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Certainly, there are elements within Google to whom the old Don't be Evil' mantra still rings true. The interesting thing for the near future will be to see how this expresses itself in the real business world.

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