Google's image takes a hit as global quest contradicts values

Only a few weeks after I last wrote about the inherent conflict in proponents of free speech doing business in China, Google has become the latest, and most painfully compromised, poster child on the issue.

Only a few weeks after I last wrote about the inherent conflict in proponents of free speech doing business in China, Google has become the latest, and most painfully compromised, poster child on the issue.

The company, it seems, can't win, torn between its global ambitions and its reputation for breaking down barriers to information. Headlines have not been kind ("Google betrays its customers worldwide" claimed an Akron Beacon Journal commentary. "Can Google repair its tarnished image?" wondered InternetWeek, and so on).

Is it fair to single out Google, which is hardly alone in making concessions in exchange for a chance to move into the most hotly sought market of the era? Yes and no. No, because pragmatically speaking, this is merely the first step into an oppressive system, and Google is certainly not alone in making compromises in order to enter.

Yes, because the actions are so at odds with everything that Google ostensibly stands for or has stood for in the past. The company's unofficial mission of "Do no harm" has, to a certain extent, come back to haunt it, even as it wins plaudits for refusing to allow the US government access to search data.

But in those seemingly conflicting actions is the crux of Google's situation. Capitulating to government pressure in the US would be a bad move for Google in terms of appeasing loyal consumers, as well as protecting its reputation.

Standing up to the Chinese would result in... not doing business in China. Given that the pressure for Google to capitulate is no doubt a byproduct, in part at least, of its need to increase shareholder value, the company may have had little choice.

But this is more than an issue of operating with a view to shareholders. It is a reminder of the complexities of operating as a global company, which also happens to be public.
Decisions like the ones Google has made are not confined to the countries in which they are enacted. Now the repercussions for the company are exactly the ones that it wanted to avoid, impacting its reputation and credibility in the US, the last thing it could ever have wanted.

So why is Google more susceptible to criticism than Microsoft and Yahoo, who have engaged in similar practices (though these companies have also been criticized)? Because consumers, like Google itself, bought into the hype that this company was truly different, from having its products in beta testing available to the public, through to its unusual IPO.

Unfortunately, it failed to anticipate how cultural differences would challenge its vision. There is something about Google's arrogance in believing that it could easily rationalize this decision that sticks in the craw a bit.

No doubt, Google will survive and may be one of the leaders in ushering in a new era of openness. But for now, it will have to brace itself for more former fans to cry foul over what seems to be a major compromise to its values, exactly because it's the kind of company where those values seemed to be so very important.

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