In the past months there's been a seismic shift in how Google is perceived by the media, government and public in the UK. From being pretty much universally loved and admired as a bastion of corporate goodness - living proof that size and profit don't necessarily equate to a lack of principles - Google now finds itself mocked for its "Don't Be Evil" slogan and accused of either condoning or facilitating a range of despicable deeds, from tax evasion to data espionage and child abuse. As each day brings a fresh piece of news that makes Microsoft and Yahoo look like the good guys of the Internet landscape, I'm surely not the only one to wonder how it has come to this.
It all started with the fuss over taxes. Politicians seemed to have a collective brainwave that the rules that they had made about what taxes corporations should pay in the UK left some gaping loopholes that - shock horror - companies exploited in order not to pay much of it. It didn't seem to matter that some of the most vociferously critics and sanctimonious finger-pointers such as Margaret Hodge (The Labour MP who chaired the Public Accounts Committee that questioned Google's tax affairs in the UK) took advantage of the same loopholes themselves.
Then there was the Prism affair that had everyone wondering about the safety of their personal data, and the moral panic about child abuse images following the sentencing of Mark Bridger for the murder of April Jones. Apparently Bridger had looked at abuse pictures online, and an instant cause-effect relationship was inferred by the frenzied media, which almost made it sound like Google was promoting said images via AdWords.
Ironically it is probably Google's desire to do the right thing that is costing it the most in the public perception arena. It would be very easy indeed to provide the government with token gestures that they could then wave around as banners of how they brought these corporate giants to heel, but Google knows that those gestures won't work, so it resists and attempts to find better solutions, leaving others to look good by "taking swift action". Microsoft, for example, was quick to give in, cobbling together a mechanism on its Bing search engine that warned people searching for certain terms that looking at child abuse images is illegal, and Yahoo looks set to follow suit. Starbucks also gave in to pressure and made arrangements to voluntarily pay more corporation tax.
But what did this actually accomplish? Does anybody with an understanding of technology believe that Bing's filter will make children safer? In his speech about why we're now going to have to opt into watching porn if we want to have access to that sort of thing, David Cameron pontificated that "The Internet is not a side-line or escape from real life." In that he is right. The Internet is very much a part of real life, and in real life equipping children to responsibly look after themselves is usually more effective than trying to lock them up or watch them all the time.
If Cameron is serious about taking action he should perhaps take time to understand the issues instead of indulging in showboating that confuses legal pornography and adults' access to it with what are vile crimes perpetrated by organized individuals operating well beyond the scope and reach of ordinary search engines. Mic Wright points out in a recent article for The Telegraph that the request for a blacklist might look good on the front pages but barely touches the edge of the problem, being more likely to simply hinder individuals with genuine enquiries related to academic work or child protection charities. "For policies that truly deal with this evil," he says, "we need politicians to truly understand the technology, not just the whims of tabloid editors." Amen.
And as for tax, it's estimated Starbucks gesture might be worth about £20million over the next two years. In the greater scheme of things, compared to over £3billion pounds in sales the company has made since setting up in the UK in 1998, it might just cover the food and drink subsidy for the House of Commons until the next election, which incidentally costs the taxpayer over £5.8million each year.
The fundamental problem can be summed up in the different approach that companies like Google and Apple take in communicating. Apple is very closed about the process behind its product design and everything else it does, but very good at promoting itself, its innovations and its products. Google fosters an open culture that is based on trial and error, user feedback and results. It believes that its products should speak for themselves and that they should just get on with doing what works. That can sometimes mean that they forget to point out all the good they do, leaving the government to get away with shamelessly scapegoating one of the few companies out there with a corporate conscience. All of that while pandering to banks, energy, and rail tycoons that take tax payer subsidies and get away with giving little or nothing back. It all reminds me of the classic Monty Python sketch where Reg (played by John Cleese) leads a rebellion of The People's Front of Judea (not to be confused with the Judea People's Front or course) against the Romans, and asks his companions:
All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?
Think about it: Does it feel strange to say "Google" instead of "search"? Products like Maps, Gmail, Chrome, YouTube, etc. etc. etc. have become so pervasive that most of us just don't notice them any more. Perhaps we should. And perhaps we should be asking ourselves what this government has ever done for us, and refuse to be distracted by sound byte policies from the real issues and real solutions that need to be found.