The great Google betrayal.

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Like so many love affairs, our relationship with Google arrived unexpectedly, blossomed fabulously and soured rapidly and bitterly.
We've thought fondly of companies before - Cadbury for their caring, socialist roots; Virgin for their casual entrepreneurship; Levis for covering our legs with such aplomb. But Google was something else.

Formed by Larry Page and Sergey Brin in 1998, with a mission  'to organise the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful' - the site wasn't the first search engine. Indeed, at the time, Yahoo! ruled the roost with misplaced confidence. When Page and Brin offered their company to Yahoo! they passed, leaving the path clear for the newer service to flourish at an unimaginable rate.
Google's appeal rests on three key elements.  It is free to access, its homepage is irresistibly simple and it has always promoted a 'groovy' culture. The HQ is known as the 'Googleplex', developers are encouraged to spend 20% of their time working on 'anything that interests them' and the company offers free, nutritional food to all employees throughout the day.
In Google, we saw a real alternative to the great monolithic corporations of the past. Alongside their (admittedly rather clunky) moto: 'Don't be evil', Google espoused a philosophy of making money without being wicked, being serious without suits and enjoying ethical business.

At last, we thought, capitalism underpinned with decency - an end to the notion of work as a daily grind in some dark and dreadful edifice for someone else's enrichment. What's more, for years, Google appeared to uphold these ambitious principles. All this 'doing good' stuff wasn't just marketing bluster, it was a genuine ethic and one that seemed to pay massive dividends. The company owned the most visited website in the world, made money hand over fist with an advertising model which revolutionised the industry, and remained human, dignified and moral. Or so it seemed.

The search engine's position in China was perhaps, the first hint something was amiss. When Google rolled out its service across the world, it found China posed a huge dilemma. Here was one of the most populace nations on the planet, constrained by a hardline communist state. They dearly wanted to do business here, but there was no way the authorities would allow unfettered access to the internet. Initially, Google firmly said they would rather not serve the territory than allow a censored version. Then they caved. Rather unimpressively, they declared a restricted Google was better than no Google at all and they would work for increased freedoms from the inside. This year, they disabled a feature, without explanation, which warned Chinese users that their search terms may be drawing the attention of the government.

Of course, Google has now expanded way beyond web searching. Anyone using Google Earth, Google Maps and Google Streetview cannot help but be overwhelmed by the sheer ingenuity and technical performance of these facilities. But their very power has added to the increasing disquiet over Google's reach. In order to compile the massive Streetview database, it was necessary for the company to send camera cars through our streets. Essentially, Google have been photographing our homes, without our permission and publishing the results on the planet's largest media platform. In some instances they inevitably captured shots of people. A rather limp offer to remove images on request didn't really resolve concerns (nor were all the images removed). Suddenly it felt as though Google was no longer the benevolent information provider - it was becoming an intrusive spy.

And now, there's the grubby matter of tax avoidance.  There can be no doubt that Google obeys every letter of the law when paying taxes in the UK and elsewhere. But, in a climate of financial austerity, that is no longer enough. As Starbucks has discovered, we now expect corporations to be on our side - to inject a useful portion of their massive profits  (and Google's profits are calculated in billions of pounds) back into our economy. When people are grubbing around for a few honest quid, we're understandably furious when any firm manipulates the rules to pay as little taxation as possible.
When that company built its business on fairness, justice and a keenness to 'do good', it looks worse than  sharp practice, it looks like betrayal.
Google doesn't need our goodwill, our respect or our affection to continue. It's commercial future is assured by its size and strength. However, if it cares anything for its brand values, its reputation and its position as the corporation that does things differently, it really is time it took a long, hard look in the mirror.   

Magnus Shaw is a copywriter, blogger and consultant




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