Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2007/04/11/googilla_inthe_boardroom/

The 800lb Googilla in the boardroom

Still doing no evil?

By Guy Kewney

Posted in Law, 11th April 2007 09:17 GMT

Column Google, like the legendary 800lb gorilla which got elected to the board, has reached the sort of size and influence where it can sit where it likes in the boardroom.

Two questions:

1) should we do something to protect ourselves from this 800lb gorilla? and 2) if so, what?

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) was pretty lukewarm about a recent Google initiative - to help the search giant personalise searches and target adverts, it normally keeps a permanent log of all searches - and the IP addresses of the users who make them.

In March, Google announced that it would delete personal details within two years. Do you feel any safer?

"It's an important concession, but we hope it's just a first step," one report quoted Kevin Bankston from the EFF. What would be the second step? Would you feel any safer?

Let me amuse you with a brief story about two vets - animal doctors, not Vietnam ex-servicemen - and a dangerous dog. It goes back to when I had two very small children and discovered they were scared of dogs; I immediately got two pets. The bigger of the two had a sore eye, which turned out to need emergency surgery...the need for which was completely overlooked by the first vet because he was so scared of the animal.

"It's a chow-chow," he said, retreating to the other side of the room. "They give no warning. Never keep one in a home, especially not with small children." And he gave us ointment for its sore eye which, of course, didn't work. So we took it to another vet, who immediately gave it anaesthetic and fixed the problem. He thought the other vet was ignorant. Here's what he said:

"I'd far rather deal with a big company like Google," he said, "which looks big and dangerous, than with a small outfit which people think is cute and dynamic - but which can actually leave your finances in a ruin."

OK, he wasn't talking about Google, but you take the point.

If you see a Rottweiler in the park, and it's walking along with its owner, without a muzzle and without a lead, you can relax. You're pretty much certain that it's a well-behaved beast, because something that big, strong and deadly simply can't be let loose in public if it is in any way vicious.

But a tiny little Yorkshire terrier - while it may be too small to jump up and tear your throat open - can still cause permanent injuries. And the difference is that people ignore the cute little Yorkie. "Ah," they say, "what a brave little beast! Hasn't it got spirit! Such pluck...".

So take the 800lb Googilla. Googilla dominates the search engine business in a way that no monopoly authority would permit. It's even bigger in the advertising business - and frankly, if you think it's already too big for comfort, just come back in a decade and you won't believe your eyes.

Let me terrify you. As you may be aware, I run a small news site. Googilla is one of my larger advertisers, and about a year ago I became aware that my news stories weren't getting listed in Google News. So I did what anybody would do if they uncovered a bureaucratic bungle - I notified the appropriate department.

Back by return came a robot answer thanking me for my feedback.

To say I wasn't pleased doesn't come close. I found an email address (naturally, the robot was a no-reply robot) and informed the recipient that this was NOT feedback; it was a complaint. And - again by return - came the response. This time it was equally brief, and equally dismissive: "Google does not include blogs in the news pages."

NewsWireless isn't a blog, not even by the standards Googilla claims to use (a single contributor), and if you check back you'll find that we have more than two dozen varied contributors on the list - a fact which I pointed out, in my pepperiest prose. I informed the Googilloid that his outfit was the most Kafkaesque mountain I'd ever had the misery of trying to climb, and cast aspersions on their competency as well as their parentage, and was just getting into my stride when another email arrived saying: "Thanks for updating our records; you will be included in news searches in future."

Do I trust an 800lb googilla? No, of course not. Will I go into the boardroom while it's sitting in one of the chairs? Well, yes! - because if something that big and powerful actually wanted to behave unethically, what could you do about it? What were we able to do about Enron? BCCI? Robert Maxwell?

But I do think there's a case for saying that Googilla is now big enough and powerful enough that the original, simple ethics of "Don't Be Evil" which inspired the founders, will be diluted. Indeed, I'm getting some indications that it is already. I've had dealings with Googilloids which are starting to remind me of incidents from the early days of Commodore, back in the 70s.

They're bad memories, of people who clearly regarded The Rest Of Us as little people, whose irritating obsessions were best ignored. And I'm starting to meet more recent Googillan recruits, who have been pulled in from senior government level, and whose ethics are those of the Parliamentary Private Secretary in the unofficial briefing room: "Say nothing you don't have to" - hide the details, and admit only what you are specifically asked about. And if all that doesn't work, fib. And if that gets exposed, explain that the query was not understood.

Is it time Google expanded its simple motto into a charter? I think so. I think it owes the rest of us an acknowledgement that it has understood the implications of its motto, and is explaining these implications to some of the high-power industry heavyweights who are joining it.

Don't Be Evil. It means: we're a big, powerful beast, but we undertake to meet basic ethical standards of transparency and responsiveness. It doesn't mean "we'll tie ourselves up in meaningless bureaucracy", but perhaps it does mean "we'll explain why we did things." For example, when it takes down pictures of a ruined New Orleans and substitutes sanitised pre-hurricane ones, it tells us how the cockup occurred. It acknowledges a duty of care to provide such explanations.

Feel free to suggest some charter clauses. I'll forward them to someone I know inside the Googilla building.

Frankly, I don't think you can ask any more. Hard experience shows that attempts to solve the problems of a vicious dog or a criminal company - tricks like Sarbanes-Oxley - neither work, nor make the companies involved responsive.

In the end, if the company is vicious, it's big enough to hide that from the regulators. If it isn't, muzzling it simply prevents it from doing its job properly. I'd rather deal with a genuinely honest company than attempt to create a framework of law which forces the Robert Maxwells of this world to behave honestly - because you can't. ®