Google: a ‘frenemy’ of the internet generation

In the run-up to next week’s live spiked debate, Rob Killick says Google is neither ‘good’ nor ‘evil’ – it’s just a very big business.

In the run-up to the live spiked debate ‘Has Google got too big?’, taking place in central London on Thursday 18 March, we will be publishing a series of articles on Google. Here, Rob Killick of cScape says Google is best understood as our ‘frenemy’.

Google has had some bad publicity recently. It is in trouble with the European Union around monopoly issues. It has decided to pull out of China after the devil’s pact it made with the Chinese government to allow censorship of its search engine finally unravelled. It is widely accused of squeezing out competitors and moving on to other people’s business turf. In addition it has long been looked at suspiciously by privacy campaigners because it has recorded details of every single search by every one of its users from its inception (yes, sorry, even that one you did when you were really drunk that night in 1999). All in all, many people would say that Google’s famous corporate slogan – ‘don’t be evil’ – is wearing a bit thin.

My view on Google is a bit like my take on Microsoft. Years ago Microsoft became corporate enemy number one to those who resented its near monopoly in the desktop and browser market. Big, ground-breaking businesses like Microsoft and Google generally do one really successful thing to establish themselves. In so doing, they create an industry standard which is very user-friendly. Microsoft did it with Outlook and Explorer, Google has done it with search. In the process of doing this, both companies became very rich and powerful.

Then, as is the nature of big businesses, they tend to crowd out or absorb competition. This is the way of modern monopoly capitalism and it applies in every sector of the economy. Most of the continued success of big businesses is based upon the fact that their customers are quite happy with the product. When something goes seriously wrong, as happened recently with Toyota, size alone is not enough to protect your business.

I was always irritated by Google’s ‘don’t be evil’ motto and it has proved self-defeating, especially through Google’s acceptance of censorship in China. Businesses have no right to describe themselves as ‘good’ or ‘evil’, but should rather be judged by the quality of their products and their ability to sustain and develop them. Businesses that flagrantly transgress the law or which upset public opinion will receive their punishment in the end. In fact, it is surprising how short the main success period span of even the biggest companies often is.

Campaigning against or resenting individual big businesses is a fairly pointless activity in a society which is based on the market. Leaving aside the conspiracy theorists, there are normally very transparent reasons why businesses do what they do and why they get away with it. Take for example the issue of privacy. There is no doubt in my mind that Google’s retention of search data is a huge invasion of privacy. The only reason that Google has got away with doing this for as long as it has is because most people are not bothered by the practice. But this is because of the prevalent blasé approach to personal privacy that exists in society, not because of anything that Google has done. Anybody who wishes to challenge Google’s right to retain data should be aiming to change society’s view on privacy, not blaming Google for taking advantage of the status quo.

Martin Sorrell, the boss of WPP, an advertising house which like many others feels Google is stepping on its toes, recently described Google as a ‘frenemy’ of his company. This is a good description of all big businesses. They provide us, sometimes imperfectly, with what we need or desire, but because they are essentially profit-making businesses they also want to destroy their competition and to exploit their customers to the full. It’s not personal, it’s business.

Rob Killick is CEO of cScape. Read his blog, UK After the Recession.

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The spiked debate, ‘Has Google got too big?’, will take place at the Royal Society of Arts in London between 6.30pm and 8pm on Thursday 18 March. It’s a free debate, but to avoid disappointment book your place NOW: click here.

Previously on spiked

Back in 2004, Sandy Starr said Google was being slated and feted for the wrong reasons. Elsewhere, he criticised the publishing industry for stalling Google’s attempt to create a virtual library. Tim Black examined an Italian court’s desicion to sentence Google executives for privacy infringement. Jennie Bristow reviewed a book which put the case for people escaping from their all-consuming ‘Second Lives’. Or read more at spiked issue Innovation.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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