Sunday, May 2, 2004

Is a Do-Gooder Company a Good Thing?. Supporters and critics agree that the public would do well to scrutinize the effects of Google's influence, whether or not it adheres to its promises of trustworthiness. By Amy Harmon. [New York Times: Business]



In the letter last Thursday that announced their plans to sell shares to the public, Google's founders were not bashful about the role they see for their company in the information utopia they hope to build.

"Searching and organizing all the world's information," the letter stated, is "an unusually important task that should be carried out by a company that is trustworthy and interested in the public good."

That company would, of course, be Google, which in the five years since it was founded by two Stanford graduate students has won 65 million users and turned "googling" into a verb.

In Silicon Valley, the company is revered for putting its mission before immediate financial gain.

But will Google be able to adhere to its famous corporate ethos, "don't do evil," with its role as the Internet's chief gatekeeper bolstered by the several billion dollars a stock sale is expected to raise?

Supporters and critics alike agree that the public would do well to scrutinize the effects of Google's outsize influence, whether or not it adheres to its promises of trustworthiness.

"Google's greatest challenge, beyond innovation or competition, is what to do with the gift of power that the culture has bestowed on them," said John Battelle, a media consultant who is writing a book about searching the Internet.

Mostly, those who use Google's search engine trust it to provide unbiased results.

But some close observers say its algorithms and advertising policies cannot help but be shaped by money and morality.

Google says it does its best to remain neutral.

Earlier this month, the company said it had no plans to alter its search results despite complaints that the first listing on a search for the word "Jew" directed people to an anti-Semitic Web site.

But it did append a note to the top of its listings that said, "We're disturbed about these results as well" and a link explaining that "because of our objective and automated ranking system, Google cannot be influenced by these petitions."

(The site was offline for a few days, so it is not currently displayed in Google's rankings, a Google spokesman said. It may return to a top spot now that it is back up.)

Because Google is so popular, its smallest decisions can carry great weight.

Rogers Cadenhead, a Web site developer and author, said he was disturbed that Google supports one format for distributing Web log entries over another.

The e-mail message from Google, published by Mr. Wyatt on his Web site, explained that the company's policy prohibits advertisements for "site content that advocates against an individual, group or organization."

"The problem for me is that Google constitutes such a large amount of the Web traffic that essentially it's like being denied the opportunity to sell it," Mr. Wyatt said.

Many small businesses say it is hard to overestimate Google's power to drive traffic to their Web sites - or steer it away.

Although other search engines like Yahoo and MSN maintain a healthy share of Internet advertising dollars, Webmasters estimate that 75 percent of all of their visitors come directly from Google.

"People optimize for Google; they study Google,'' said Brett Tabke, the chief executive of

In the political realm, Jonathan Zittrain, the co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, said Google had voluntarily decided to remove certain hate sites in its German and French versions that could be deemed illegal in those countries.

Still, many Internet observers say they are heartened by the unusual commitment to the public interest voiced by Google's founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page.

If enough Web pages link a certain Web page to a phrase, the Google search engine will start to associate that page with the phrase.

That is why anyone searching on Google for the phrase "weapons of mass destruction'' will find what looks like an error message as the top ranking.

Summarized by Copernic Summarizer


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