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Google is arguably one of the most interesting companies to rise to prominence in the past decade. And the reason isn't just that, in the space of a few years, it grew to become a billion-dollar company and the world's most recognizable online search brand.
One of the reasons is so interesting: it is, for lack of a better word, often paradoxical. Two Google-related news items in the past two days highlighted this.
Exposing heavy-handed government.
In a post on the Google blog yesterday, Google announced that it has launched a Government Requests tool. The purpose: reveal to the public the requests Google receives from governments around the world. These requests include content takedown requests, as well as requests for information about Google users. According to Google, many of the requests it receives are legitimate, and it tries to comply with them while doing its best to protect users who may be impacted by them.
Yet Google also makes it clear that by publicly releasing data about these requests, it may be able to help reduce them. While Google isn't releasing the details of each request for the time being (it's simply making available publicly aggregated data), Google explains its motivations:
...we hope this tool will shine some light on the scale and scope of government requests for censorship and data around the globe. We also hope that this is just the first step toward increased transparency about these actions across the technology and communications industries.
Censorship and 'human rights' are two things that Google has been publicly talking a lot about in recent months. Yet the day before Google made its announcement about its Government Requests tool and explained its importance, "data protection authorities" in ten different countries sent a letter to Google about its purported lack of respect for user privacy. The letter, which was originally written by Jennifer Stoddart, Canada's Privacy Commissioner, reads in part:
...we are increasingly concerned that, too often, the privacy rights of the world’s citizens are being forgotten as Google rolls out new technological applications. We were disturbed by your recent rollout of the Google Buzz social networking application, which betrayed a disappointing disregard for fundamental privacy norms and laws. Moreover, this was not the first time you have failed to take adequate account of privacy considerations when launching new services.
In other words, governments around the world believe that Google is more interested in its products (and profits) than in its users' privacy.
How is it that Google can stand up for the individual against censorship and overreaching government while at the same time violating individual privacy? It's easy: Google, like most companies, does what's good for business.
While it's quite possible that Google's quirky co-founders are truly interested in issues like censorship, censorship also happens to be bad for Google's bottom line. After all, anything that limits the information that Google can display in search results makes Google search less appealing to consumers, and potentially reduces opportunities for Google to serve more ads. At the same time, however, Google's interest in shielding users from government bureaucrats doesn't necessarily mean it wants to shield them from its product managers.
Google can't simply lock up its valuable user data and throw away the key; finding new ways to take advantage of its gold mine of user data means that Google has to balance individual privacy with its own desires. As we've seen, its own desires often trump individual privacy.
What's unique about Google is that it has sought to portray itself as a different kind of company from the very beginning (remember the "do no evil" mantra?). In business, however, principle inevitably comes into conflict with pragmatism, and the end result is often a situation that looks hypocritical.
The fact that Google announced a tool to expose government censorship the day after ten government officials criticized the company for lax privacy protections is a good reminder of this hypocrisy. Obviously, Google is a successful company and will remain dominant in the search market for the foreseeable future. But it might be time to consider toning down the do-gooder-speak. It's really starting to look silly.