GOOGLE is a company of contradictions. It claims to be open, but guards its secrets fiercely. It presents itself as a green company, but owns the world’s largest cluster of computers, using huge amounts of power to keep them cool. It is a quintessentially modern company that is run by like a feudal kingdom, with founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and chief executive Eric Schmidt overseeing a federation of small, self-contained groups. Although “don’t be evil” is the search giant’s unofficial motto, many of its competitors see it as the devil incarnate.
Despite these incongruities – or maybe even because of them – Google is a force to be reckoned with. By far the biggest and the best player in search, it has built a huge online advertising empire that dwarfs rivals. For that reason, it was only a matter of time before regulators started sniffing around.
Nor will concerns over privacy disappear, especially as the firm limps from one public relations disaster to another. Insiders say it was genuinely shocked when publishers objected to its ambition to scan entire university libraries, suggesting it is astonishingly naive.
In reality, Google has proven itself to be remarkably good at protecting customer data, but that isn’t enough. The risk is not Google itself, but the fact that so much of our information is now stored centrally on the web giant’s servers, rather than scattered on our own individual hard disks. That information is at risk of abuse, not by Google itself, but by rogue governments and authoritarians, as the firm found out in China.
The debate around Google often paints it as an unassailable rival that needs its wings clipped, but those that support such a position miss the point. Google does have heavyweight competitors, and often struggles to land blows on them. In social networking, it has made little headway against the likes of Facebook and Twitter, while it is neck-and-neck with Apple in the race to dominate the mobile phone.
Google stands at a cross-roads. It is a fantastic company – few doubt that. Now it has to show shareholders that it can grow and innovate while fighting constant battles on the regulatory front, something arch foe Microsoft failed to do. And it must convince customers that it really is a force for good, not evil. I, for one, hope it succeeds.
• David Crow is taking part in a Spiked debate, ‘Has Google got too big?’, at the Royal Society of Arts in London between 6.30pm and 8pm tonight. For more information go to http://tinyurl.com/y8oku3l