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Google: God or Gorilla?
Is Google a benevolent force or an 800-pound gorilla? A recent Washington Post story on the company's rise to power sounds disturbingly like a parody from The Onion.
My friend Ari Epstein pointed out the similarities between the following Washington Post story and the earlier parody from The Onion. What do you think--does Google's aim to democratize information justify its monopolistic means?


What Lurks in Its Soul?
By David A. Vise, Washington Post
Sunday, November 13, 2005; B01

The soul of the Google machine is a passion for disruptive innovation.

Powered by brilliant engineers, mathematicians and technological visionaries, Google ferociously pushes the limits of everything it undertakes. The company's DNA emanates from its youthful founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, who operate with "a healthy disregard for the impossible," as Page likes to say. Their goal: to organize all of the world's information and make it universally accessible, whatever the consequences.

Google's colorful childlike logo, its whimsical appeal and its lightning-fast search results have made it the darling of information-hungry Internet users. Google has accomplished something rare in the hard-charging, mouse-eat-mouse environment that defines the high-tech world -- it has made itself charming. We like Google. We giggle at the "Google doodles," the playful decorations on its logo that appear on holidays or other special occasions. We eagerly sample the new online toys that Google rolls out every few months.

But these friendly features belie Google's disdain for the status quo and its voracious appetite for aggressively pursuing initiatives to bring about radical change. Google is testing the boundaries in so many ways, and so purposefully, it's likely to wind up at the center of a variety of legal battles with landmark significance.

Consider the wide-ranging implications of the activities now underway at the Googleplex, the company's campuslike headquarters in California's Silicon Valley. Google is compiling a genetic and biological database using the vast power of its search engines; scanning millions of books without traditional regard for copyright laws; tracing online searches to individual Internet users and storing them indefinitely; demanding cell phone numbers in exchange for free e-mail accounts (known as Gmail) as it begins to build the first global cell phone directory; saving Gmails forever on its own servers, making them a tempting target for law enforcement abuse; inserting ads for the first time in e-mails; making hundreds of thousands of cheap personal computers to serve as cogs in powerful global networks.

Google has also created a new kind of work environment. It serves three free meals a day to its employees (known as Googlers) so that they can remain on-site and spend more time working. It provides them with free on-site medical and dental care and haircuts, as well as washers and dryers. It charters buses with wireless Web access between San Francisco and Silicon Valley so that employees can toil en route to the office. To encourage innovation, it gives employees one day a week -- known as 20 percent time -- to work on anything that interests them.

To eliminate the distinction between work and play -- and keep the Googlers happily at the Googleplex -- they have volleyball, foosball, puzzles, games, rollerblading, colorful kitchens stocked with free drinks and snacks, bowls of M&Ms, lava lamps, vibrating massage chairs and a culture encouraging Googlers to bring their dogs to work. (No cats allowed.) The perks also include an on-site masseuse, and extravagant touch-pad-controlled toilets with six levels of heat for the seat and automated washing, drying and flushing without the need for toilet paper.

Meanwhile, the Googlers spend countless hours tweaking Google's hardware and software to reliably deliver search results in a fraction of a second. Few Google users realize, however, that every search ends up as a part of Google's huge database, where the company collects data on you, based on the searches you conduct and the Web sites you visit through Google. The company maintains that it does this to serve you better, and deliver ads and search results more closely targeted to your interests. But the fact remains: Google knows a lot more about you than you know about Google.

If these were the actions of some obscure company, maybe none of this would matter much. But these are the practices of an enterprise whose search engine is so ubiquitous it has become synonymous with the Internet itself for millions of computer users. And if the Google Guys have their way, their presence will only grow. Brin and Page see Google (its motto: "Don't Be Evil") as a populist force for good that empowers individuals to find information fast about anything and everything.

Part of Google's success has to do with the network of more than 100,000 cheap personal computers it has built and deployed in its own data centers around the world. Google constantly adds new computers to its network, making it a prolific PC assembler and manufacturer in its own right. "We are like Dell," quipped Peter Norvig, Google's chief of search quality.

The highly specialized world of technology breaks down these days into companies that do either hardware or software. Google's tech wizards have figured out how to do both well. "They run the largest computer system in the world," said John Hennessy, a member of Google's board of directors, a computer scientist and president of Stanford University. "I don't think there is even anything close."

Google doesn't need all that computer power to help us search for the best Italian restaurant in Northern Virginia. It has grander plans. The company is quietly working with maverick biologist Craig Venter and others on groundbreaking genetic and biological research. Google's immense capacity and turbo-charged search technology, it turns out, appears to be an ideal match for the large amount of data contained in the human genome. Venter and others say that the search engine has the ability to deal with so many variables at once that its use could lead to the discovery of new medicines or cures for diseases. Sergey Brin says searching all of the world's information includes examining the genetic makeup of our own bodies, and he foresees a day when each of us will be able to learn more about our own predisposition for various illnesses, allergies and other important biological predictors by comparing our personal genetic code with the human genome, a process known as "Googling Your Genes."

"This is the ultimate intersection of technology and health that will empower millions of individuals," Venter said. "Helping people understand their own genetic code and statistical code is something that should be broadly available through a service like Google within a decade."

Brin's partner has nurtured a different ambition. For years, Larry Page dreamed of tearing down the walls of libraries, and eliminating the barriers of geography, by making millions of books searchable by anybody in the world with an Internet connection. After Google began scanning thousands of library books to make them searchable online, book publishers and authors cried foul, filing lawsuits claiming copyright infringement.

Many companies would have reached an amicable settlement. Not Google. Undaunted, Google fired back, saying copyright laws were meant to serve the public interest and didn't apply in the digital realm of search. Google's altruistic tone masked its savvy, hard-nosed business strategy -- more books online means more searches, more ads and more profits. Google recently began displaying some of these books online (print.google.com), and resumed scanning the contents of books from the collections of Harvard, Stanford, the University of Michigan, the New York Public Library and Oxford. But legal experts predict that the company's disruptive innovation will undoubtedly show up on the Supreme Court's docket one day.

From Madison Avenue to Microsoft, Google's rapid-fire innovation and growing power pose a threat of one kind or another. Its ad-driven financial success has propelled its stock market value to $110 billion, more than the combined value of Disney, Ford, General Motors, Amazon.com and the media companies that own the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. Its simplified method of having advertisers sign up online, through a self-service option, threatens ad agencies and media buyers who traditionally have played that role. Its penchant for continuously releasing new products and services in beta, or test form, before they are perfected, has sent Microsoft reeling. Chairman Bill Gates recently warned employees in an internal memo of the challenges posed by such "disruptive" change.

Microsoft also worries that Google is raiding the ranks of its best employees. That was threatening enough when Google operated exclusively in Silicon Valley. But it grew worse when Google opened an outpost in the suburbs of Seattle, just down the road from Microsoft headquarters, and aggressively started poaching. Microsoft finally sued Google for its hiring of Kai-Fu Lee, a senior technologist who once headed Microsoft's Chinese operations. Lee is now recruiting in Asia for Google, despite a court order upholding aspects of a non-compete clause that Lee signed while at Microsoft.

Google's success is neither accidental nor ephemeral. Brin and Page -- the sons of college professors who introduced them to computing when they were toddlers -- met in 1995 at Stanford, where they were both Ph.D candidates in computer science and technology. They became inseparable and set out to do things their own way. Professors laughed at Page when he said one day that he was going to download the Internet so he could improve upon the primitive early search engines.

Seven years ago, Google didn't exist in any form beyond a glimmer in the eyes of Brin and Page. Then in the fall of 1998, they took leaves of absence from Stanford, and moved their hardware into the garage and several rooms of a house in nearby Menlo Park. Armed primarily with the belief that they could build a better search engine, they have created a company unlike any other.

With Brin and Page setting the tone, Google's distinctive DNA makes it an employer of choice for the world's smartest technologists because they feel empowered to change the world. And despite its growing head count of more than 4,000 employees worldwide, Google maintains the pace of innovation in ways contrary to other corporations by continuing to work in small teams of three to five, no matter how big the undertaking. Once Google went public and could no longer lure new engineers with the promise of lucrative stock options, Brin invented large multi-million-dollar stock awards for the small teams that come up with the most innovative ideas.

A good example is Google's latest deal -- a far-reaching, complex partnership with NASA, unlike any agreement between a private firm and the space agency, to share data and resources and employees and identify ways to create new products and conduct searches together in space. Although NASA is a public entity, many of the details of the partnership remain hidden from public view.

Despite all that has been achieved, Google remains in its infancy. Brin likes to compare the firm to a child who has completed first grade. He and Page gaze into a glittering globe in the Googleplex that shows billions of Google searches streaming in from around the world, and notice the areas that are dark. These are the places that have no Internet access.

Quietly, they have been buying up the dark fiber necessary to build GoogleNet, and provide wireless Web access for free to millions or billions of computer userspotentially disruptive to phone and cable companies that now dominate the high-speed Internet field. Their reasoning is straightforward: If more people globally have Internet access, then more people will use Google. The more books and other information that they can translate into any language through an automated, math-based process they are developing now, the more compelling the Google experience will be for everyone, and the more wealth the company will have to invest in their vision.

Supremely confident, the biggest risk that Brin, Page and Google face is that they will be unable to avoid the arrogance that typically accompanies extraordinary success. Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos jokes that Brin and Page are so sure of themselves, they wouldn't hesitate to argue with a divine presence.

But the fact remains that they are human beings, and inevitably, both they and Google will make mistakes. Unless any of these prove lethal, however, Google -- through its relentless focus on disruptive innovation -- appears likely to wreak havoc on established enterprises and principles for many years to come.

Author's e-mail: vised@washpost.com

David Vise is a Post business reporter and the co-author with Mark Malseed of "The Google Story," published this week by Random House.

Google Announces Plan To Destroy All Information It Can't Index
The Onion
August 31, 2005 | Issue 41?35

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA?Executives at Google, the rapidly growing online-search company that promises to "organize the world's information," announced Monday the latest step in their expansion effort: a far-reaching plan to destroy all the information it is unable to index.

"Our users want the world to be as simple, clean, and accessible as the Google home page itself," said Google CEO Eric Schmidt at a press conference held in their corporate offices. "Soon, it will be."

The new project, dubbed Google Purge, will join such popular services as Google Images, Google News, and Google Maps, which catalogs the entire surface of the Earth using high-resolution satellites.

As a part of Purge's first phase, executives will destroy all copyrighted materials that cannot be searched by Google.

"A year ago, Google offered to scan every book on the planet for its Google Print project. Now, they are promising to burn the rest," John Battelle wrote in his widely read "Searchblog." "Thanks to Google Purge, you'll never have to worry that your search has missed some obscure book, because that book will no longer exist. And the same goes for movies, art, and music."

"Book burning is just the beginning," said Google co-founder Larry Page. "This fall, we'll unveil Google Sound, which will record and index all the noise on Earth. Is your baby sleeping soundly? Does your high-school sweetheart still talk about you? Google will have the answers."

Page added: "And thanks to Google Purge, anything our global microphone network can't pick up will be silenced by noise-cancellation machines in low-Earth orbit."

As a part of Phase One operations, Google executives will permanently erase the hard drive of any computer that is not already indexed by the Google Desktop Search.

"We believe that Google Desktop Search is the best way to unlock the information hidden on your hard drive," Schmidt said. "If you haven't given it a try, now's the time. In one week, the deleting begins."

Although Google executives are keeping many details about Google Purge under wraps, some analysts speculate that the categories of information Google will eventually index or destroy include handwritten correspondence, buried fossils, and private thoughts and feelings.

The company's new directive may explain its recent acquisition of Celera Genomics, the company that mapped the human genome, and its buildup of a vast army of laser-equipped robots.

"Google finally has what it needs to catalog the DNA of every organism on Earth," said analyst Imran Kahn of J.P. Morgan Chase. "Of course, some people might not want their DNA indexed. Hence, the robot army. It's crazy, it's brilliant--typical Google."

Google's robot army is rumored to include some 4 million cybernetic search-and-destroy units, each capable of capturing and scanning up to 100 humans per day. Said co-founder Sergey Brin: "The scanning will be relatively painless. Hey, it's Google. It'll be fun to be scanned by a Googlebot. But in the event people resist, the robots are programmed to liquify the brain."

Markets responded favorably to the announcement of Google Purge, with traders bidding up Google's share price by $1.24, to $285.92, in late trading after the announcement. But some critics of the company have found cause for complaint.

"This announcement is a red flag," said Daniel Brandt, founder of Google-Watch.org. "I certainly don't want to accuse of them having bad intentions. But this campaign of destruction and genocide raises some potential privacy concerns."

Brandt also expressed reservations about the company's new motto. Until yesterday's news conference, the company's unofficial slogan had been "Don't be evil." The slogan has now been expanded to "Don't be evil, unless it's necessary for the greater good."

"A lot of companies are so worried about short-term reactions that they ignore the long view," Page said. "Not us. Our team is focused on something more than just making money. At Google, we're using technology to make dreams come true."

"Soon," Brin added, "we'll make dreams clickable, or destroy them forever."
Posted 2005-11-16 06:28:52 by Jon Ippolito
Comments on this story... (toggle all)

Google is [James Scott, 2005-11-16 20:50:11]

Google is super force of the internet, i was amazed, appalled and smocked to see just how powerful they really are. google is a common household name now, unless you have lived under a rock the past few years. How many times a week do you say Google, or use the search engine. I also am somewhat alarmed at the thought of being able to find out about my genes on the net. I think some things should be left for the human imagination to figure out on their will, not presented to us with a straight forward answer that is unchangeable. This whole article basically just makes me really wonder/worry about the future.

Not that paranoid...yet. [Ian Marquis, 2005-11-17 11:54:52]

Google might be capable of some rather...invasive proceedures, but that doesn't mean we need to be afraid of it. Not quite yet, at least. What really fascinates me is how Google has transformed itself in seven years (or so) from a simple search engine with a unique premise to one of the most innovative endeavors (and companies) we've ever seen. I mean, really, it's fascinating. Cry 1984 all you want, but Google is doing a lot of good for our society. I just hope I'll be dead before it starts to turn bad.

The demise will come [Timothy Holt, 2005-11-17 14:17:50]

I once read that the reason the google homepage is so plain is because the creators hardly knew any HTML. Seven years later the page still looks the same but the content has blown up. From what i read it seems to me that Google is trying to tackle the impossible, cataloging every book, genes, deleting what they cant control. I think eventually google will control too much information and consumers will avoid them all together. Because they are taking on so much and taking such a big risk, it makes for a potentially much bigger collapse.

The problem is... [John Bell, 2005-11-17 14:58:45]

...it wouldn't be possible without Google. Or at least, something like it. Peer-to-peer (and I mean the architecture, not necessarily the applications) might be useful for file sharing, but it's not exactly good at indexing or searching. It's just too inefficient to send out a broadcast message to every machine on the net asking if they've seen a web page on fly fishing. It's even inefficient at the server-to-server level, which is what happens in many file sharing networks.
So really, it's irrelevant to ask the question simply because you can't have the level of democritization Google offers without some sort of Google-like entity controlling it. And as such things go, Google has been pretty beneficient so far...

maybe I'm slow [Austin Soule, 2005-11-17 21:17:01]

I don't follow exactly what google's plan is doing. Are they actually deleting information or are they excluding it from their database for searches? All I know is that if they deleted a picture on my hard drive because it wasn't search worthy, I would flip out. I am all about open-sourcing, but some things aren't meant for everyone to have access to. And I should still be able to have it if it doesn't fit google's system goals. Maybe I'm misunderstanding, but don't delete my stuff and stay out of *MY* computer. Other than that, google is sweet. Thanks for making searching so easy.

no, you just missed the satire [Jon Ippolito, 2005-11-27 01:46:50]

The second story, from the Onion, is a spoof.


[no message] [Jon Ippolito, 2005-11-27 01:51:33]

Nothing here, just a comment test.

Go for it Google! [Sara McCormick, 2005-11-17 23:59:53]

After reading this article, I'm not too worried. It seems that whenever some new technology comes out, somebody gets scared about it. Google has grown so big so fast that maybe it will take over the world, but I'm willing to go along for the ride. With so many smart, creative, inventive people working for them, I find it hard that Google will do something that is going to destroy all of our information. Just maybe Google will end up doing something great...maybe they will help us find cures for diseases. I guess we'll just have to wait and see.

Growing and growing... [Eric Pierpont, 2005-11-20 16:48:36]

In response to Tims post, how can you know how to code a search engine but barely know any html... Either way their site is simple and easy to use with lightning fast results. Google may one day try to control too much information, but if information is still easy to find people will stick with the company, and also how can you not love a company if they provide you with free wireless internet.

Yes, go for it [Jeffrey Remick, 2005-11-20 19:23:05]

To an extent, I agree with Sara. I think it is wonderful that Google has been so successful and I hope they continue to push the boundaries. Although, I am unsure how I feel about making every book available in digital format only because of copyright laws and such. If I wrote a book that was available in libraries or book stores, I am not sure how I would feel about it being put online. On the other hand, I do support the idea of shared knowledge.. for everyone, everywhere. Which is why I hope projects like GoogleNet can come true and help everybody have access to the interweb.

Books for all? [Aerin Raymond, 2005-11-28 10:09:22]

I'm excited about Google bringing more and more options to the table--I think it's good to have a lot of things like that based out of one company. Being able to go to one place for like things (Best Buy for Multimedia, Pet Co. for pets, etc) is a good and concise way to do business.
I am not so sure about making books available online. Thats just making one more medium available for stealing by the masses. Sure, maybe they can offer a chapter of the book and have someone purchase the rest and have it delivered to their house, but I don't know that it'd be fair to put the whole text online. Plus, reading a Tolkien book or something? That CAN'T be good for your eyes.

Google's m [Christopher Vaughan, 2005-11-20 19:54:04]

Google's moto is 'Do no Evil' how can they keep this up? They are creating a huge system for potential abuse by their employees. They know so much that with the right/wrong mind they could do very evil things. They've been doing good so far but every company has it's downfall.

The whole google thing reminds me of the movie Minority Report when cruise is running around in the flick he is constantly being bombarded by advertisements that are targeted to him. Google just recently aquired a company that specializes in face recognition. So that's what will happen. They are an advertising firm and they want to know everything about u. I recently read that search has 3 or so phases 1. categorization 2. search 3. personalized search. We are just seeing the start of personalized targeted search. It's MyWeb so I can have it the way I want, why don't they give it to me like that. Well they don't know and google is trying to find that out every way possible.

If you want to see the future read some sci fi or watch some movies. No idea is far fetched. It's all possible with the right amount of capital and that's what google has a lot of and I'm sure u're going to see continuing things that will blow u're mind.

Who knew... [Joseph Raymond, 2005-11-20 19:55:01]

that Google would take over the internet? So far so good I say. They haven't done anything but good in my eyes. The idea, however, of having my genes being compared to other's genes through an online database does make me a little nervous.

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