Don’t make Google the whipping boy for others' failings

Sometimes Google does do evil, but blaming it for the disconnect between the law and the Web is a huge mistake

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Credit: Flickr/Robert Scoble

Google’s motto “do no evil” never meant that much. Google always did what it had to do for its own benefit, but it was seen as -- and arguably was -- a company changing the world for the better. Now it appears that governments around the world are taking the position that Google can’t do anything right.

  • The search engine giant is beset by the EU, which has forced it to delete an untold number of search entries because the EU has decided individuals have the right to control what is publicly displayed about them.
  • The Spanish Association of Daily Newspaper Publishers cried foul over Google’s unpaid appropriation of its content, which led to Google removing all Spanish newspapers from Google News.
  • A coalition of U.S. attorneys general is trying to force Google to scour its search results for illegal goods or services, such as drug imports, to prevent people from finding them.

None of these examples is simple, of course.

People have a right to privacy, but the EU’s dictum that individuals and corporations can sanitize their pasts through removal of search links, the so-called right to be forgotten, is an atrocious, Orwellian overreach.

The Spanish publishers have a point: Google is, in fact, ripping them off, but they brought it on themselves by stubbornly ignoring the Internet until it was almost too late.

State officials going after Google are legitimately concerned about the sales of illegal pharmaceuticals on the Web. But should Google be in the position to decide what might be illegal, then scrub it from its search results?

Google and publishers are both to blame

Before the Internet became dominant, newspapers and magazines made their money through print advertising and subscriptions. If you wanted to read a story in InfoWorld, for example, you’d have to buy it on the newsstand or subscribe. Other publications could mention something we wrote, but they could not print lengthy excerpts without hearing from our lawyers.

But the Internet turned that model on its head. InfoWorld no longer has a print edition, most of our traffic comes from searches on the Internet, and many readers first learn of our content by checking Google News.

To be sure, that’s a benefit. A story that’s mentioned high up on Google News will get much more traffic than one that isn’t. What’s wrong with that?

More than you might expect -- here’s an example taken from Google News on Wednesday morning. There’s a headline, “S&P 500 Spikes on Excitement Ahead of Fed Announcement," followed by a short summary of a story from TheStreet.com: “Energy stocks were leading markets higher Wednesday as crude oil prices turned positive. Investor sentiment was also positive ahead of the Federal Reserve announcement in the afternoon amid hopes the central bank will leave ..."

For many readers, that headline and summary is all they need to know. Those readers won’t click through, which means TheStreet has derived zero revenue for its trouble. But Google will make money -- for work done by TheStreet.

Although Google News pages don’t have ads, Google derives most of its enormous revenue from searches for news and similar outlets. What’s more, a person who goes directly to the home page of TheStreet.com will see stories and advertising they won’t see when they go straight from Google News. Making Google share the revenue it gets from using other sites' content is not unreasonable.

That’s exactly the issue that prompted the Spanish publishers to lobby their government to pass a law requiring so-called aggregators (read: Google) to pay royalties to publications when they do what Google did in the example of TheStreet.com. Google retaliated by shutting down the Spanish version of Google News.

Muddying the waters even more is the sorry history of the publishing industry’s efforts to go digital. For years, publishers simply gave away their content on the Web in hopes that ad revenue would pay the bills. Readers became used to the idea that content on the Web should be free, which makes it even harder for websites to charge for their content. As a result, newspapers and magazines have dropped like leaves in a fall windstorm, and many thousands of people lost their jobs.

That wasn’t Google’s fault, and it already appears that the Spanish publishers regret their action.

In the attacks on Google, who’s evil now?

Does Google have too much power? It probably does -- it controls the vast majority of the market for searches, and it has leveraged that dominance into a leading position in advertising and related areas like mapping.

Has Google violated user privacy on many occasions? Of course it has.

Those are real concerns. But forcing a breakup of the company, an action the EU is seriously considering, is preposterous. The EU can’t force structural changes to a company in the United States, but it could make it impossible to do business in Europe if it didn’t comply with a ruling.

Similarly, the American attorneys general who believe Google could do more to stop the traffic in illegal pharmaceuticals and pirated content are responding to real problems. But as Google’s general counsel, Kent Walker, said in an email obtained by the New York Times: “It is our firm belief that Google should not be the arbiter of what is and is not legal on the Web -- that is for courts and government to decide.”

As the Times article points out, Google's competitors are working hard behind the scenes to gain advantage by influencing regulators to win victories they have been unable to score in the marketplace.

The laws in America and Europe stretch back over centuries of legislation and legal precedents. The Internet has been a force for two decades or so. It’s going to take the law and social practice a good deal of time to catch up.

Until then, making Google a whipping boy for a wide range of problems makes no sense. You might even say doing so is evil.

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