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October 30, 2006

What do you want from Google?

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The Guardian Unlimited reports that Google is about to take center stage in a political debate as it tries to become a champion for free speech and intellectual property rights abroad.

According to the article:

“The Silicon Valley giant will attempt to position itself as a force for change that can finance web entrepreneurs in the developing world, champion the rights of consumers against ‘over-zealous’ copy-right laws and use the web to protect diverse minority cultures and languages.”

It’s perhaps a noble cause, but is it Google’s cause to make? Especially considering their past dealings of censorship in China?

Let me clarify.

I respect Google’s decision in China. Ninety-eight percent of the time I am of the belief that any access to information is a positive thing (The other two percent my journalism background shows itself and I get all First Amendment crazed). Thinking rationally, by Google having a presence in China they are providing users there with information they would not have had otherwise. I am glad Google is in China, I respect them running their engine adhering to local customs, and I feel that they are doing more good than harm by being there. Google is the well-intentioned search engine. I like that.

However, I think if you’re going to stand before a special UN conference, you can’t play both sides of the fence. You can’t argue free speech internationally when you’ve had no problem comprising this in the past. Either you are for free speech or you are okay with putting limitations on free speech when necessary. Google has shown they are the latter, which is fine, but it does make their new Google-will-set-you-free stance somewhat unsettling.

But that’s not my only issue with this article. My bigger question is whether or not it’s even Google’s role to walk into a country and educate them on Western intellectual property rights and copyright law. Is Google a search engine or an advocacy group and should we allow them to be both?

Personally I think its slippery slope. I don’t want my Google with a side of self-righteousness (the proclamation that they were converting to solar power was hard enough). I think the West has a long enough history of trying to instill their beliefs on other cultures and I would hate to see Google continue down that road. That has never been the Google way.

And the fact that Google can even make that argument on such a large forum means we have already given them the power to instill their beliefs. Why have we made Google a political figure? Would we allow the same right to Yahoo! or Microsoft or Ask?

If Microsoft walked into the UN and starting ‘educating’ third world countries about the power of the Internet, people would be up in arms, accusing them of trying to pad their own pockets. If it was Ask or Yahoo! doing it, no one would even listen. But because it’s Google, we’ll listen. Even though they have already shown they will comply with local governments when necessary.

I may support Google but I don’t think they belong in the United Nations.

The reason I backed Google’s decision in China was because I thought that it showed Google understood their role – which was to provide search. Google is a search engine.

Or maybe I’m off base.

What do you think Google’s role should be both domestically and abroad? Should Google (and for that matter, Microsoft and Yahoo!) be demanding change from international governments? Or is their role only to provide information as determined by local customs? What authority are you willing to hand over to Google? Let me know.

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