Google is a fascinating company. One of its “core principles” is, “You can make money without doing evil”-a tenet that suggested Google would never do what presumably many other companies were less squeamish about doing. That mantra, and the more direct unofficial slogan, “Don’t be evil,” were supposed to be the guiding light for Google’s executives and employees.
But in recent years, Google’s motto has also become its curse. As the company got bigger and entered multiple new markets, people have increasingly asked whether Google has held true to the do-no-evil philosophy, especially in light of persistent complaints about the erosion of personal privacy caused by Google’s Street View mapping feature and the Google Buzz social network.
So far, Google has remained relatively unscathed, as some of the privacy concerns voiced by regulators and pundits have mostly gone unnoticed by the mainstream media and Internet users at large. That obviously helps Google. But how much longer can the current situation last?
If Google doesn’t act fast to solve its privacy troubles, they will linger and haunt the company. Here’s why:
1. The mainstream will eventually care
Google has yet to be faced with widespread outcry over privacy. Part of that is because its privacy troubles were centered on Buzz and Street View, which aren’t all that popular among mainstream users. But it’s also because the public simply doesn’t care about privacy the way it should. For now, that is helping Google, Facebook and other companies that have faced privacy complaints. But it won’t stay that way forever. And unless Google changes things up, it will be faced with objections from the mainstream public eventually.
2. It’s becoming more frequent
Whether Google wants to admit it or not, the privacy issues that used to arise every now and then are starting to rear their ugly heads more often. It was just a few months ago that the company was battling outcry over its Buzz practices. Now it’s being forced to admit that it inadvertently collected private information over public WiFi networks as it was taking pictures for Street View. The more privacy concerns are made public, the greater the chance they will hurt the search giant.
3. Privacy matters to companies
The tech industry is moving online. The enterprise is quickly realizing that for businesses to be more efficient than they were in the past, moving to the Web is a necessity. Google will be one of the companies that will bring others into the cloud and help make their transition easier. But if Google continues to attract privacy complaints, some organizations might balk at using its services when they get to the cloud. That could spell trouble for Google’s bottom line.
4. The government will take more notice
For now, the U.S. government and European regulators are spending much of their time picking on Facebook and Microsoft. But that is starting to change as more lawmakers realize that Google is acquiring a level of power and dominance that is almost unprecedented in the industry. Google’s market power also makes it a target for ambitious lawmakers and regulators. Look for more inquiries into Google’s operations as the company continues to grow and move into new markets with new information services.
Privacy Complaints Bring Google Unwanted Attention
5. The competition will push it
As Microsoft, Yahoo and just about every other prominent company with Web interests has found, trying to beat Google is daunting and, in most cases, ends in failure. But it’s entirely possible that Google’s privacy woes could be a weapon that Microsoft and its cohorts can use to take Google down a notch or two. Just as Opera Software took aim at Microsoft’s Internet Explorer in its recent complaints in Europe over competition issues, Microsoft could take a similar approach against Google.
6. Size is everything
If Google were still a small search company that wanted to change the Web, its privacy troubles wouldn’t matter all that much. But it’s not. Google is now one of the most important companies in the entire industry. It’s also the benchmark by which all other Web companies are judged. If it’s not being held to a higher standard than some of the other online businesses, then that’s arguably a disservice to Web users. That’s precisely why Google needs to keep protecting privacy as one of its core missions in the future. Its size puts a target on its back whether it likes it or not.
7. There are precedents in place
Google isn’t the first company to deal with regulators regarding privacy. It joins a long list of companies dating back a decade that have been forced to discuss how they do business. That might prove to be troublesome for Google. Since lawmakers have more than enough practice at this kind of thing, they might be more adept at highlighting the troubled areas. They might also be more inclined to focus in on Google. An informed regulator community is damaging to just about any company.
8. It won’t be beloved forever
Google is coasting. The company is still widely beloved around the world, both for its outstanding services and for its stock price, which has helped bolster retirement plans all over the globe. But that level of love can’t last indefinitely. Just look at Microsoft. For years, the software giant was a favorite among consumers and enterprise customers that were able to do more than ever with a computer. But all that changed as the company grew and started consolidating its power. Microsoft is now disliked around the world and that has cost it dearly. It may only be a matter of time before Google experiences the same shift in opinion.
9. It’s not always easy to be the good company
All in all, Google has done wonders for the tech industry. It has pushed the cloud forward, revolutionized search and transformed the way people interact with Websites. But being the good company isn’t always easy. Whenever there is a slip-up or something goes awry, it’s magnified for the simple reason that it’s not expected from such a company. Eventually, small problems could be blown out of proportion because of the perception of Google’s brand. Fair or not, the company will need to deal with that.
10. Facebook could make it worse
It’s important to remember that Google isn’t the only company facing privacy complaints on the Web. Currently, Facebook is dealing with an even greater privacy issue that could come to define the social network’s year. And depending on how that goes, it could cause lawmakers and privacy advocates to seek out other areas where user privacy is potentially being violated. Look for Google’s services to be first on that list.