Google: The new ‘evil empire’?

By David Thomas

It’s weird to think that, back in the days of the 1990s, Microsoft was often derided as the “evil empire” of the corporate and technological warfare.

Some would argue that Microsoft still is an evil empire like the Soviet Union. There are plenty of gamers who rip on them for their perceived failings of the Xbox 360.

So who’s the United States, the other superpower in this technological Cold War? That would be Google.

But even though I’ve made Google the U.S. in this analogy, do not assume that I consider them to be the shining white knights here. In a way, Google scares me a lot more than Microsoft because of the power and influence it is able to exert.

As a member of a profession that is slowly dying, I have the right to have a personal beef with Google. One of the reasons why newspapers are losing money is that advertisements from the print edition are going online, and it’s a lot cheaper to buy an online ad than its print counterpart. But even online news sites are losing ad revenue, because all of the ads are going to Google. I’ve noticed the power of Google News in my own life; a good chunk of the news that I look at is from aggregators like Google News. If it’s not on there or Foreign Policy, chance are, I will not here about it.

And there’s the recent spat with China. Google left the world’s largest and fastest-growing Internet market after it had been hit by what Google called “a highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure”, which was supposedly orchestrated by the Chinese government.

Reaction to this has been mixed. While some have congratulated Google for standing up to the dictatorial regime, others have commented on the futility of the move in general.

Either way you spin it, this decision could have huge ramifications for how China operates, according to Robbert Haddick, managing editor of Small Wars Journal. He writes, “Google is walking away from a Chinese government whose business practices it considers out of control. This will show the way for other Western multinationals to stand up against the Chinese government’s social coercion, frequent non-protection of property rights, and outright theft of intellectual property. Following Google’s action, those Western firms that do business with the Chinese government will have to respond to tougher questions from their shareholders.”

And then there’s the interesting interview in Foreign Policy (I really like FP, if you haven’t noticed at this point) I read a few weeks ago about Google “poaching” an up-and-comer in the State Department. His name is Jared Cohen, and he is responsible for leading the department into what he calls “21st century statecraft.” He’s leaving the public sector for the private sector as the head of a new division called Google Ideas. In his own words: “In the same way Policy Planning works by bringing together a lot of stakeholders in government, out of government, and across different sectors, so, too, will Google Ideas do something very similar. And the range of challenges that it may focus on include everything from the sort of hard challenges like counterterrorism, counterradicalization, and nonproliferation, to some of the ones people might expect it to focus on, like development and citizen empowerment.

“What I’m interested in is the SWAT-team model of building teams of stakeholders with different resources and perspectives to troubleshoot challenges. So the reason I say it’s a think/do tank is you need a comprehensive approach to think about and tackle challenges in different kinds of ways. In government, we used to refer to a ‘whole of government’ approach, meaning work with multiple agencies to leverage ideas and resources; Google Ideas will take a ‘whole of society’ approach.”

I believe that within the next few decades, Google will be one of the trasnational companies author Kim Stanley Robinson describes in his “Mars” trilogy. In other words, Google will be one of the most active political actors on the scene, able to muster more political might than the majority of governments.

Now it’s true that companies today exert influence on government and our lives, but if Google Ideas becomes fully fleshed out, it’ll be a force that could be reckoned with in the coming years.

Google has a lot of power. I only hope that they follow their motto: “Don’t be evil.”