Google: be nice or go home

Google famously brandishes the informal motto: “Don’t be evil”. This reminds me of a sign I saw in Britain’s Lake District last summer: “Be nice or go home”.

As you might expect, the customers in the Grasmere tea shop were all very nice, though I doubt most had been monitoring their demeanour as they tasted their toasted teacakes. Google’s slogan, on the other hand, was conceived as an internal touchstone for debating corporate ethical behaviour. I can picture the US search group’s senior executives pondering it for hours before making key decisions such as the one this week to end the controversial censorship of its search engine in China, at the  risk of being thrown out of the country.

It is clear that deep soul-searching accompanied the decision in 2006 to block certain websites in the first place. This was always a controversial deal: without such restrictions Google would not have been able to set up a local Chinese service at all. Google co-founder Sergey Brin was one Google executive who had reservations at the time.

No doubt the company tries to be utilitarian. But its motto is inevitably a hostage to fortune, providing an easy target for critics.

Take for instance the company’s Book Search project. This audacious drive to scan all the world’s books to create a universal online library, has not surprisingly riled many of the authors, rivals and governments it could affect.

On Tuesday the French government threatened to eject Google from a project to digitise the collection of the French national library, unless the internet group radically changed the terms of its book-scanning project.

A few days before Christmas, American science fiction writer Ursula le Guin resigned from the Authors Guild, one of the US groups that Google is working with, lambasting it for making a “deal with the devil”.

And on January 6, three writers’ groups sent an open letter to those members of the US Congress who are also published authors, taking issue with the revised Google Books Settlement, which provisionally settles the class-action law suit brought against Google in 2005 by the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers. “It isn’t fair,” the letter claims. “There are millions of book authors in this country who could be locked into an agreement they don’t understand and didn’t ask for.”

On Slate last year, Tim Wu, a fellow at the New America Foundation, suggested there was no need to fear Google. He put the case well:

We are talking about a venture to provide online access to books that, by definition, are unpopular. It’s great for a researcher like me, but as a commercial venture it is almost certainly a perpetual money-loser. Everyone (even Google itself) seems to have forgotten that there is a reason that libraries aren’t generally run for profit.

And in December, Daniel Clancy, engineering director of Google Books, told American broadcaster PBS:

There’s nothing we’re doing that prevents anyone from doing the exact same thing. And the one thing that I strongly think is the wrong answer is that we should lock all this stuff up, so that nobody can discover and use these books.

But these arguments won’t wash with Gary Reback, attorney for the Open Book Alliance, whose membership includes Google’s rivals Microsoft and In the same excellent PBS video, he says:

What Google is proposing here is not like any library you have ever been to. It’s not a public library. It’s a private library. And it’s being run for profit, big profits. Google is going to charge university scholars, ordinary people, even schoolchildren, to get access to books that Google copied without the permission of the publisher or the author.

Another gripe deserves a mention: last weekend Google was forced to apologise to authors in China whose books it had scanned without permission.

What an unusual turn of events: an apology – and then Google stands up to China on censorship. Good and evil are so much easier to disentangle in Grasmere.

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Christopher Cook is an FT editorial writer. Before joining the FT in 2008 as a Peter Martin Fellow, he worked for three years for the Conservative party.

Lorien Kite is deputy comment editor, a post he took up in 2009 after four years as a commissioning editor on the analysis page. He joined the FT in 2000.

Ian Holdsworth became assistant features editor in 2009 and was previously chief production journalist for the features pages.