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Google: we're not evil and we're no monopoly, either Add to ...

There's a story Google employees like to tell about company co-founder Larry Page's childhood days.

Once a year, the story goes, Mr. Page and his father, a computer-science professor, would drive all the way from the family home in Michigan to their favourite West Coast bookstore. They would stuff the car full of empty suitcases and come back from the massive bibliophilic shopping spree with the cases full.

The story is meant not only as the usual big-boss lore, but as evidence of good faith, because today Google is mired in a complex, money-draining legal fight over its plan to digitize the world's books.

Opponents maintain that it would give the Web giant a monopolistic stranglehold on the digital book market. Google, by contrast, is framing it as a vision of public service, shaped not by the potential for profit, but by all those cross-country book-shopping trips.

This battle, which has prompted supportive and opposition filings from hundreds of companies, associations and governments, is currently in the mire. A judge has set a Nov. 9 deadline for the parties to propose a new settlement after the U.S. Justice Department effectively killed the previous deal.

But for Google, this is just the most high-profile symptom of a larger challenge - convincing the world that the company whose slogan is "Don't Be Evil" really isn't.

The problem isn't just one of cosmetic perception. A decade ago, Microsoft found itself facing similar accusations of anti-competitive behaviour - which eventually turned into multibillion-dollar antitrust lawsuits across two continents, legal messes the software maker is only now closing the book on.

Earlier this year, President Barack Obama appointed Christine Varney, one of the best-known Internet-law experts in the U.S., as the top antitrust official at the Justice Department. A few months before, she had told a legal-conference audience that Microsoft was "so last century," then added: "They are not the problem. I think we are going to continually see a problem potentially with Google."

No wonder, then, that Google is launching a pre-emptive offensive to try to ward off any accusation of monopolistic behaviour. Indeed, the company's senior competition lawyer has spent much of this year telling anyone who will listen that Google actually isn't all that great.

"We've had the luxury of being No. 1 in terms of users of search for a little while now," says Dana Wagner, a former U.S. Justice Department lawyer. "But we disrupted Yahoo, and Yahoo disrupted AltaVista. People have declared victory before in this space, and it hasn't been the case."

Google, he is saying, is certainly not too big to fail.

Mr. Wagner is taking his presentation to reporters, industry associations and, most important, policy-makers. And a company with just a $2-million (U.S.) lobbying budget is about to put a lot more money into changing important people's minds.

"In a West Coast company run by engineers, I don't think there was much attention paid to being in Ottawa, being in D.C. and telling your story," Mr. Wagner says. "If you don't tell your story, other people do it for you."

Tomorrow morning, if you want to go search somewhere else, you can search wherever you want. We don't hold you, we don't charge you a subscription, we don't charge you a fee and say we're holding your data hostage Nikesh Arora, president of Google's global sales operations

And if part of that story involves reminding users that they can switch to another search engine at any time, so be it. The implications are too big to ignore, both for the company and for the millions of people who use its products.

A repeat of the Microsoft scenario could fundamentally change not only the way Google provides its services, but also whether the company can provide some of those services at all, as with the book-digitization project.

A company known for taking on audacious challenges may be facing its most difficult yet - dealing with its own success.

Google hacks itself

The Data Liberation Front is stalking Google.

From Gmail to YouTube to Blogger, DLF's Chicago-based engineers are tearing the company's services apart, making it easier for the average user to remove all their personal data from Google's products and go somewhere else.

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