There is no doubting Google's power. Not only has the company become its own verb, but, in pure economic terms, it has reached the level where comparing it to a small country is a cliché. The company reported almost $30bn in revenues in 2010, at the end of which it was sitting on a cash pile of almost $35bn or, cliché notwithstanding, more than the $31bn in foreign currency reserves sitting in the accounts of Australia's central bank.
But it is also at a turning point in its history. Google's hold on the search business—it controls roughly two-thirds of the market—has been coming under fire from regulators. Authorities in both Europe and the US are now conducting anti-trust investigations into how it conducts business.
Google's growing reach has seen it confront challenges to its own perception of itself as a force for good. In the US it faces growing criticism that it is contributing to a shallowing out of the collective memory—that to Google more, is to know less. Its high-profile launch in China in 2006 saw the company criticized for acceding to government censorship demands. Its decision last year to stop co-operating with government censors and relocate its Chinese search business to Hong Kong in the wake of mysterious hacking attacks drew a tongue-lashing from Beijing. This growth has also created internal problems. Once a scrappy Silicon Valley start-up that operated out of a garage, Google now employs some 25,000 people around the world. Those employees still regularly rank it as one of the best companies to work for, thanks in part to its legendary benefits such as on-site health care and laundry rooms. But in recent years, some of its stars have left for rivals such as Facebook, in part, they said, because Google's immense size had made the company more plodding. Announcing his departure to Facebook—which has a tenth of the employees that Google has—last year, Lars Rasmussen, the co-creator of Google Maps, complained to The Sydney Morning Herald that "it can be very challenging to be working in a company the size of Google."
Google is fighting back. In the same week that the first Google Ideas conference took place, the company also launched its Google+ competitor to Facebook, which some have called its biggest social media effort yet. But its size means that, these days, its forays are also occasionally treated with suspicion. Paul Carrillo, a former gang member who served on the steering committee for the Save summit, says he initially ran into distrust from others. "The first question was: 'Why is Google doing this? What is their vested interest? [Are they] trying to take advantage of us? Parade us around town so they look good? … Are they trying to get us to get all the gang members to use their products?' "
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According to Eric Schmidt, Google's business model remains "to come up with new ideas to make the world a better place. The point is that, as a corporation, we're trying to do more than just serve our shareholders. We're also literally trying to serve our citizens, our customers."
A 56-year-old former Novell and Sun Microsystems executive, Schmidt was brought in as Google's CEO in 2001 to add management experience and help shepherd its growth. He stepped down as CEO in January and, as executive chairman, is now responsible for what his bio calls "the external matters of Google", including advising the senior management on "business and policy issues".
But during the Dublin summit he occasionally appeared to be on the defensive, insisting that Google was "not trying to take a political stand" as reporters pressed him on the big question of just why the company was convening a meeting that, while interesting, seemed to have very little to do with its business.
Schmidt insists that Google is comfortable pushing boundaries. "Google doesn't shrink from a fight based on the principles of Google," he told me. But he also admitted that he was worried about people "using the language of us becoming political [with Google Ideas], which we are explicitly not trying to become. We're not trying to take a political stand. We're trying to take a pro-information and empowerment stand."
Google Ideas remains a work in progress. Presented with even the simplest of questions about what Google Ideas' role would be, Schmidt sometimes seemed flustered. "To make real progress you have to tackle the hard issues," he said, when I asked him what other sorts of global problems he envisioned Google Ideas addressing. "I mean, there are lots of interesting problems that you could tackle. You could tackle the Iranian nuclear bomb problem."
Isn't that a political issue? "It's also a very hard one and we don't have an obvious idea. But if we had one, you know, we would think about it," he said. But is [Iran's nuclear program] really the type of issue that Google Ideas would be willing to tackle? "I was using it as a semi-facetious example. I was trying to pick it as a really hard one," Schmidt answered, before going on to say that Google was "explicitly not setting a boundary" on the sorts of issues Google Ideas might tackle.
Schmidt also seemed surprised when I pointed out that some believed that Google might, in fact, have an added responsibility to address the issue of violent extremism, given the way extremists use the video site YouTube, which Google bought for $1.65bn in 2006, to disseminate messages.
"That's a good argument. To be truthful we have not framed it that way," Schmidt said. He conceded that "we could make that argument" but added: "Internally it's not how we define it. We don't see ourselves as doing bad, we see ourselves as doing good. This is about a good thing."
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