Google: Friend or Foe?

“It is always with the best intentions that the worst work is done.”

–       Oscar Wilde

It would be hard to argue that Google started out with a hope for global domination. What Sergey Brin and Larry Page began in the garage of a two-bedroom house was not much more than an idea – a search engine that could raise the bar of web search performance by utilizing a system of search result ranking.

As straight-forward as that might sound on paper, the ideals behind Google’s business practices started off anything but conventional. Page and Brin, being intellectuals and engineers at their core, vehemently rejected any type of business structure that could limit the creativity of their developmental process. The motto “Don’t be evil,” Google’s only mission statement at the start of their growth, pays homage of this idea of a minimalist managerial approach to business.

Of course, as stockholders and investors begin to see massive growth and little profit within the first four years of Google’s enterprise, pressure to adopt a more standard business structure seemed to come from all sides. Eric Schmidt, brought on to act as CEO and buffer between the two delicately-handled founders and investors, was the first step of many to attempt to streamline Google’s business practices.

Brin and Page, throughout the years leading up to what Google is today, had always been advocates for progress and discovery. Google employees are allotted 20% of their time to work on personal projects, some of which have spawned many of the most popular Google applications many web users use on a daily basis.

Recently, however, one must take a step back from this fairy tale story of two underdogs creating a billion-dollar business in their garage and look at the current actions of the company. The intent of Google Books, an application that has scanned thousands of literary works and provided them free for viewing on the web, raises some important questions about copyright and Google’s history of acting first and apologizing later. (Let’s not forget what happened in China.)

If Google Books succeeds in its quest to digitize the literary world, authors everywhere will lose considerable financial profit. Does Google’s motto still stand true if their actions threaten the livelihood of authors everywhere? Brin and Page would argue that providing literary works to the public via the web is as beneficial as having local libraries, but how are authors of these works being compensated?

According to copyright law, even libraries are not exempt from paying fees for the rights to house and lend out books to the general public. In fact, the fee for a library to own the rights to regularly distribute a book is much greater than a personal ownership license for a book. How is Google getting around this major bureaucratic hurdle?

However this plays out, I think it is safe to say that “not being evil” isn’t enough to justify the steps a company like Google takes in the name of societal enrichment. In a perfect world, sure – everything would be free and knowledge would flow like raging rivers. Unfortunately, in our capitalist environment, it is rare to be able to get something for nothing, and when you do, you are usually breaking the law.

So what will it be, Google?

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~ by dparsonsmedia on February 28, 2010.

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