Google vs. Evil ;).
The world’s biggest, best-loved search engine owes its success to supreme technology and a simple rule: Don’t be evil. Now the geek icon is finding that moral compromise is just the cost of doing big business.
By Josh McHugh
Life used to be so much easier for Sergey Brin. In the autumn of 1998, he and Larry Page unleashed Google with a clear mission: Help computer users find exactly what they want on the Internet. Newbies flocked to the site, grateful for a simple search engine that was both powerful and intuitive. More sophisticated techies came to appreciate Google’s computational elegance and its willingness to shun the “portal” model that crammed ecommerce down their throats. Within months, Google became one of the most popular sites on the Web – and not long after that, “Google” became a verb. Today, Internet users spend about 15 million hours a month on the site. Google.com logs more than 28 million visitors each month, nearly as many as Yahoo! and MSN. Nearly four out of five Internet searches happen on Google or on sites that license its technology.
Google owes its swelling popularity to deft algorithms that quickly divine what’s useful on the Web. But there’s more to it than that. At Google, purity matters. Over the years, Brin and Page have resisted pressure to run banners, opting instead for haiku-like text ads and unintrusive sponsored links. They’ve taken a stand against pop-ups and pop-unders and refused ads from sites they consider to be overly negative. All the while, they’ve stubbornly kept the Google homepage concise and pristine. On just a faint whisper of a marketing campaign, the company pulled in an estimated $70 million last year (a third from licensing fees and the rest from ads).
The Google strategy appeals to every engineer’s sense of The Way It Should Be. Build the best entry in the science fair. Do not tart it up. Do not make it more clever than it needs to be.
But a funny thing is happening on the way to Internet adulthood – Google’s awkward teen years. The company’s growth spurt has spawned a host of daunting questions that no data-retrieval system can easily answer. Should Google play ball with repressive foreign governments? Refuse to link users to “hate” sites? Punish marketers who artificially inflate site rankings? Fight the Church of Scientology’s attempts to silence critics? And what to do about the cache, Google’s archive of previously indexed pages? In April, the German national railroad threatened legal action to remove an obsolete site containing sabotage instructions.
Most major companies refer to a detailed code of corporate conduct when considering such policy decisions. General Electric devotes 15 pages on its Web site to an integrity policy. Nortel’s site has 34 pages of guidelines. Google’s code of conduct can be boiled down to a mere three words: Don’t be evil.
Very Star Wars. But what does it mean?
“Evil,” says Google CEO Eric Schmidt, “is what Sergey says is evil.”
Of the Google triumvirate, Schmidt makes sure the company stays on course financially and strategically; Page keeps busy in the R&D lab, cranking out new features; and the 29-year-old Brin, in his role as Google’s conscience and head policymaker, spends his days gripping the moral tiller – and in so doing, imposes his worldview on everyone else.
That puts Brin at the flashpoint of most of the major Internet-related controversies. He knows his decisions have far-reaching consequences. He feels the pressure that attends Google’s growing power. “I do get fairly stressed,” Brin says. “I’d like to feel a little less scrutinized.”
Google has succeeded by adhering to one, pure principle: Do good by users. Now, for the first time in its history, Google is facing rifts between what’s good for users and what’s good for Google. And Sergey Brin is finding that purity just doesn’t scale.
Don’t be evil. Brin has had to refer back to those three words quite a bit over the past year. Governments, religious bodies, businesses, and individuals are all bearing down on the company, forcing Brin to make decisions that have an effect on the entire Internet. “Things that would normally be side issues for another company carry the weight of responsibility for us,” Brin says.
In March, lawyers representing the Church of Scientology requested that Google stop linking to a Norwegian anti-Scientology site called Operation Clambake. The church claimed the site, xenu.net, displayed copyrighted Scientology content and that by providing links to the information, Google was in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Much to the dismay of many First Amendment fans, Google caved, removing the offending pages from its index.
In May, Anita Roddick, the outspoken British founder of the Body Shop, blasted Google in her blog for yanking a text ad for her site. Google’s explanation: Roddick had called actor John Malkovich a “vomitous worm” in her blog, violating a Google policy against accepting ads for sites that are “anti-” anything. After Roddick protested, Google offered to reinstate the ad in exchange for a promise from Roddick that she would remove the Malkovich reference from the first page of her site. When she refused, Brin had a decision to make: Should he give in and accept Roddick’s money, or stand by his principles? He chose his principles.
Three months later, Daniel Brandt, who runs google-watch.org, attacked PageRank, the algorithm at the heart of Google’s vaunted system, accusing the company of being unfair and undemocratic. Brandt urged the FTC to investigate Google and regulate it as a public utility – as a company that, in effect, controls access to the Internet’s natural resources. The mainstream press tended to dismiss Brandt as a webmaster spurned by a low Google ranking, but in the online forums and weblogs, many agreed with his assertion. As far as search engines go, Google has become the only game in town.
Then in the first week of September, Brin found himself pulled into matters of foreign policy. He received several emails from users telling him that the Chinese government, worried about political dissent in the weeks before the 16th Chinese Party Congress, had shut down access to the site. “Our Chinese traffic was down by a factor of five,” Brin says. “We were blocked.”
Brin was no expert on international diplomacy. So he ordered a half-dozen books about Chinese history, business, and politics on Amazon.com and splurged on overnight shipping. He consulted with Schmidt, Page, and David Drummond, Google’s general counsel and head of business development, then put in a call to tech industry doyenne Esther Dyson for advice and contacts. Google has no offices in China, so Brin enlisted go-betweens to get the message to Chinese authorities that Google would be very interested in working out a compromise to restore access. “We didn’t want to do anything rash,” Brin says. “The situation over there is more complex than I had imagined.”
Four days later, Chinese authorities restored access to the site. How did that happen? For starters, the Chinese government was deluged with outcries from the nation’s 46 million Internet users when access to Google was cut off. “Internet users in China are an apolitical crowd,” says Xiao Qiang, executive director of New York-based Human Rights In China. “They tend to be people who are doing well, and they don’t usually voice strong views. But this stepped into their digital freedom.”
The quick workaround: Chinese authorities tweaked the national firewall, making the new Google China different from the site that was turned off. Today, Chinese who use Google to search on terms like “falun gong” or “human rights in china” receive a standard-looking results page. But when they click on any of the results, either their browsers are redirected to a blank or government-approved page, or their computers are blocked from accessing Google for an hour or two. “They have a new mechanism that can block the results of certain searches,” Brin says. Did Google help China find or obtain the filtering technology? “We didn’t make changes to our servers” is all he’ll say.
In late October, a report by two Harvard researchers revealed that Google had begun filtering its own servers to block users in Germany, France, and Switzerland from accessing sites carrying material likely to be judged racist or inflammatory in each country. Neither Brin nor anyone else at Google will talk about about the preemptive self-censoring moves in Europe.
In the wake of these international incidents, members of Google’s loyal, tech-savvy constituency began to question the company’s motives. “I am a little on the fence about Google’s latest actions,” wrote Brian Osborne, a staff writer for Geek.com, a news site. “On one hand, I understand Google’s stance that it must remain in compliance with German and French laws. Nevertheless, Google is putting itself on a very slippery slope.”
“What is this?” asks a visitor squinting at the form he must sign before proceeding to the cafeteria at Google’s Mountain View, California, headquarters. “An NDA? To have lunch?”
The receptionist shrugs. “This is Google,” she says. “They’re crazy that way.”
The Googleplex, contrary to almost every written account of the place, is hardly a haven of easygoing geek whimsy. The cafeteria is adorned with a tie-dyed banner, but the Google employees aren’t humming any Dead songs. Most of them appear deadly serious. Brin’s second-floor office overlooks a courtyard festooned with empty hammocks. A book about Enron rests on his coffee table.
Brin’s designation as Google’s policy maven is relatively new. He, the big thinker, and Page, the mad scientist, complemented each other and shared nearly every role in Google’s early years. “Larry was always the driver,” says Scott Hassan, who did much of the programming for the original Google. “A big part of his role was going around and yelling ‘Why can’t it do this? Why isn’t this working?'” Brin would sit next to Hassan and watch him write code, pointing out errors and taking an occasional turn at the keyboard.
The frenetic Page looked at all the popular engines at the time and decided they were going about search the wrong way. By relying on HTML code – meta tags as well as page text – they would bring back all sorts of irrelevant information and open themselves up to massive manipulation by webmasters looking to increase their own rankings. Brin took Page’s observation and ran with it. He figured the best way around the problem was to harness the vast repository of human judgments already preserved on the Internet in the form of hyperlinks. “Most people search for local maximums – like figuring out how to get the best car, the best immediate situation,” Hassan says. “Sergey is always searching for global maximums.”
By 2001, Google’s breakneck growth convinced Page and Brin it was time to establish a more rigid structure. Page handed over the CEO title to Schmidt and became copresident with Brin. The move freed up Page to focus on developing his knack for product development (as a child, he crafted a printer out of spare parts and Lego blocks). Brin’s passion for the big picture made him the natural choice to spend time on Google’s growing role in the world.
Which means Brin’s views on politics and policy matter quite a bit. Not that he’s willing to talk. He tells me he listens to NPR on his morning drive to work. I think Democrat and ask about his voter affiliation. He says he votes across party lines. Independent? He smiles and tells me there’s no easy shortcut toward figuring out how he comes to his decisions about good and evil. And even if there was, he wouldn’t let me in on it. If I succeed in figuring out exactly what he considers good and evil, people who don’t care about Google users might start gaming him the way they try to game his search engine.
Born in Moscow and raised in the suburbs of Washington, DC, Brin grew up listening in on conversations at the dinner parties thrown by his father, a math professor, and his mother, a NASA scientist. Talking about his decisions and the values he holds most dear, Brin chooses his language carefully, but one word he repeatedly comes back to is “useful.” And while Google’s policy decisions over the past year look a bit haphazard at first glance, they begin to make more sense in a worldview where usefulness is the paramount virtue.
Aside from the indisputable goodness of causing hard-line Communist Party officials to say the word “Google” to one another for a few days, it’s difficult to say on which side of the good-evil line the company’s China resolution falls. Brin seems at peace with how it all turned out. “Political searches are not that big a fraction of the searches coming out of China,” he says. “You want to look at the total value picture that a search engine like Google brings and think of all that it’s used for.”
But Xiao Qiang, the activist, thinks the company should have taken a firmer stand. “Ultimately, China’s state censorship mechanism will have to submit to this growing demand for freedom from Chinese netizens,” Xiao says. “It’s important to protect integrity, particularly for an Internet firm.”
On the same day that China blocked access to Google, it also flipped the switch on AltaVista. AltaVista issued a defiant statement to the media and went on to list several ways to access the site. Months later, AltaVista is still blocked. Brin figures that by meeting China halfway, Google remained available – and useful – to visitors and also preserved its advertising revenue there. “You have to look at the total value picture,” he says.
What about the Scientology mess? Didn’t Google give in too easily? Jennifer Urban, a fellow at Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law and a member of Chilling Effects, an organization formed to document attempts to stifle speech on the Internet, says that from a legal standpoint, Google’s hands were tied. “To qualify for safe harbor protection from liability, they really have to err on the side of taking down the link,” Urban says.
In fact, Google didn’t fold entirely. After consulting with Brin, Kulpreet Rana, Google’s head of IP, found a way that Google could comply with the law without letting the Scientologists erase their critics from the Internet. The solution: When Google gets a request to remove a link under the safe harbor provisions of the DMCA Section 512, it substitutes a link to a form on the Chilling Effects’ site. The form contains the Web address of the page in question, and anyone still interested in the site can direct their browser to the address.
Does abiding by the letter of a bad and flimsy law absolve Google from charges that it squashed free expression? Cindy Cohn, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is certain that a vigorous legal challenge would put an end to the steady flow of Section 512 filings Google receives but admits she doesn’t expect Google to devote its resources to such a broad fight. And while some cheered Google’s workaround as evidence of a rebellious bit of payback – a small point scored against the enemies of unfettered speech – the move is another instance of Brin choosing the path of usefulness over a righteous crusade.
If Brin’s code of good and evil permits the company to negotiate with sovereign governments and allows for some legal meddling from unpopular religions, there is no wiggle room – no gray area whatsoever – when it comes to those who attempt to subvert the power of Google to their own commercial ends. One thing Brin is sure of: On the side of evil lies trickery.
I ask Brin to imagine, for a moment, running his company’s evil twin, a sort of anti-Google. “We would be doing things like having advertising that wasn’t marked as being paid for. Stuff that violates the trust of the users,” he says, describing a site that sounds not unlike the pay-for-placement search site Overture. “Say someone came looking for breast cancer information and didn’t know that some listings were paid for with money from drug companies. We’d be endangering people’s health.”
The anti-Google might also be more amenable to the growing business of “optimization,” the altering of Web sites so that they rank higher in search engine results. For a fee, there’s help for a Dallas plumber who’s unhappy that his site is on the 17th page of results when someone types “Dallas plumber” into Google. An optimizer will tweak the site in such a way that boosts it to, say, the 3rd page of results.
To pull this off with Google, an optimizer needs to understand how the company’s search mechanism works. Google uses 100 or so closely guarded algorithms to determine its search results. The best known of the lot is called PageRank, which allocates relevancy to a page according to the number and importance of pages linked to it, the number and importance of pages linked to each of those pages, and so on. One ploy is to create “link farms,” in which an optimizer gets clients to link to one another, racking up relevancy points. In general, optimizers make a living by guessing what Google regards as important. The way Brin sees it, the optimizers are co-opting Google’s bond of trust with its users. He regards optimizers the way a mother grizzly might regard a hunter jabbing at her cub with a stick.
Every month, when Google updates its index and its mix of algorithms, it rakes a disruptive claw across the optimizers’ systems. In the industry, the monthly shuffle is known as the Google Dance, and Brin doesn’t mind letting on that if Google ends up dancing all over the optimizers, so much the better. “When we change and improve our technology, things get shuffled around,” Brin says, “and sometimes it has a disproportionate effect on optimization sites.”
Consider the case of Bob Massa, a former solid oak dining room furniture salesman who lives in Oklahoma City and runs SearchKing, an optimization company he started in 1997. Last summer, Massa received a rare gift from Google in the form of the Google Toolbar, a software program that lets users perform searches without going to Google.com. More important for Massa, the Toolbar shows the approximate PageRank, on a scale of one to ten, of whatever page a user is visiting. It was the first time since Brin and Page were in grad school that they’d shared so much technical information. After years of watching Google’s every move like an Etruscan high priest trying to augur divine intent from cloud formations, Massa had a piece of the goods. On August 9, Massa started selling optimization based on PageRank.
After the Google Dance of September 20, most of Massa’s customers suddenly found themselves in a heap at the very bottom of Google’s 3 billion site index. It seems that the improvements Google had made included a severe downgrade of sites with links to SearchKing. Massa’s customers, needless to say, were very, very unhappy. “Everyone thinks I’m the biggest idiot in the world for making Google mad,” Massa said in October.
He filed suit a few weeks later, charging that Google downgraded his customers’ scores in a deliberate attempt to put him out of business. The suit asks for an injunction forcing Google to restore the scores to pre-Dance levels, and seeks $75,000 in damages. “It’s a classic good versus evil thing,” says Massa, turning Brin’s framework back on Google itself. “I knew they wouldn’t like it. I didn’t think they’d go so far as to wipe out all these little people.”
The day Massa’s suit was filed, the reaction from the Slashdot crowd and most other forums was predictably vociferous, with posters stumbling over themselves to craft metaphors painting Massa as a criminal suing his victim. But gradually, a surprising number of people, while careful not to look as though they were defending Massa, began tagging the search engine as a Google-opoly. It’s hard to sympathize with a David as parasitic as Massa, but Slashdotters tend to be uneasy with Goliaths of any stripe, especially when their methods are kept secret.
And the real problem with Massa is that he’s simply the termite Brin is able to see. There are thousands more behind the wall, invisibly boring away at the very structure of Google’s house. “It’s easy to become overly obsessed with those kinds of things,” Brin admits.
It would make things a lot easier for Brin if the world’s webmasters would just act as though his site didn’t matter, but that’s not human nature. There’s no way around it – as long as Google remains the search engine of choice, the arms race between Google coders and the hordes of optimizers will go on.
As proficient as Google is at revealing information, Brin is adept at keeping key morsels under wraps. In a way, that makes a lot of sense. Although the obvious image of Google is one of accumulation, the essence of data retrieval is just the opposite. Google is about division and subtraction, narrowing down billions of choices before revealing the most promising. Brin’s world isn’t as simple as visible equals good, hidden equals evil. Google’s effectiveness as a search tool depends largely on how well it’s able to shroud the site’s inner workings from the commercial interests that clutter so much of the Internet today.
But here’s the thing: If Brin thinks his job has become more difficult over the past year, it may soon become near impossible. In September, at the height of the China controversy, Google legal eagle Drummond spotted an article about the prospect of a Google IPO, which, the story said, might be the spark to ignite the dormant public offerings market. Drummond forwarded the story with some sardonic comments. In his office, Brin tries to find the email for me but can’t. He notes the irony in that, and goes on to paraphrase the note: “Oh, OK, now we’re going to reform the Chinese government – and on top of that, we’re going to fix Wall Street.”
Schmidt claims the company is in no rush to go public, but his appointment and the hiring of CFO George Rayes last August were unmistakable steps in that direction. When the IPO comes, it will bring riches – and more problems.
As a private company, Google has one master: users. As a public company, there are shareholders to worry about. And more than happy users, shareholders want ever-greater profits. Thus far, Brin and Page have succeeded in standing up to pressures that might compromise Google and the user experience. Google’s influential stand against pop-up ads extends beyond its own domain – the company rejects advertisers whose links take Google users to pages that feature pop-ups. (AOL followed suit in October, announcing its own pop-up moratorium.) But when Google becomes a public company, shareholders might force the site to take a more amenable position, if the price is right. After all, for several years, Yahoo! refused to accept anything but fast-loading banner ads, claiming that it was looking out for users. That policy lasted until right about the time that the company’s stock price began to cave.
Such pressure could cause Brin to rethink other policies, like his decision to refuse all alcohol and tobacco advertising. The fact that Google accepts advertising for adult content sites is an intriguing commentary on Brin’s morality: Cigarettes and booze are evil; porn is not. It’s a policy that would become progressively harder to defend were Google to go public. Then there’s the Google cache to consider. Today’s users love having access to a warehouse of information that was once published on the Internet but has since disappeared. Some information goes away for a reason, though. The cache could get Google in trouble, and Brin & Co. could soon find themselves facing all sorts of libel, defamation, or copyright lawsuits.
Increased competition may also cause Brin to do other things he’s loath to do. So far, Google has gotten by without much in the way of competition from the other Internet superpowers. But in May, Yusuf Mehdi, the head of MSN, said he views Google as “more of a competitor than a partner” in the effort to become the default homepage on millions of browsers. What if, as Google.com solidifies its position as the focal point of the Internet, Yahoo! and AOL begin to rethink the millions in licensing fees they pay to what has become a top competitor? Brin may be forced to make the kind of concessions that he’s thus far reserved for international governments.
The utilitarian manner in which Google has achieved its success has made it a sentimental favorite among the code-parsing set. Tech-community sites like Slashdot are almost uniformly pro-Google. Those with the temerity to bring lawsuits against Google ultimately feel the burn of online flames, watching their servers wither under the quasi-zealous wrath of thousands of engineers defending one of their own. But as Google is forced to make more concessions to realpolitik, its bonds with that idealistic constituency will inevitably continue to fray.
And without any sort of technological lock-in, it would be very easy for Google’s visitors to simply start using other search engines. Fast Search & Transfer, based in Norway, boasts a 2.1 billion-page index at http://www.alltheweb.com, and its search engine works as quickly as Google’s. What’s more, it does a complete crawl of the Internet every 7 to 11 days compared with Google’s 28 days. What if an influential group of politically active netizens makes a rousing case for boycotting Google on the grounds that it is anti-free speech and in cahoots with repressive governments? How long can a hugely powerful company that plays its decisions so close to the vest and refuses to justify itself publicly count on the devotion of the average information-hungry Web user?
It’s inevitable that a company of Google’s size and influence will have to compromise on purity. There’s a chance that, in five years, Google will end up looking like a slightly cleaner version of what Yahoo! has become. There’s also a chance that the site will be able to make a convincing case to investors that long-term user satisfaction trumps short-term profit. The leadership of the Internet is Sergey Brin’s to lose. For now, at least, in Google we trust.
Who said? Josh McHugh said ;).