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More evil than Google?

July 07, 2007 10:06 IST

No matter how many times Google chants its 'Don't be evil' mantra, its critics just won't disappear.

In fact, the crowd of detractors who see Google as the Mountain View monster is only growing: Last month, Privacy International placed Google dead last in its evaluation of Internet service companies in terms of consumer data protection, labeling the search giant "hostile to privacy."

The Federal Trade Commission is investigating whether Google's acquisition of DoubleClick constitutes a monopoly, and the company faces a $1 billion lawsuit from Viacom for YouTube's alleged copyright infringement.

Google has been fending off complaints that it underestimates click fraud rates even after paying a $90 million settlement in a click fraud case in March of last year.

And it's dogged by criticism for its policy of censoring search results in China, a decision that Bill Gates once mocked by saying that Google should change its motto from "Don't be evil" to "Do less evil."

But Google could do worse than to be "less evil" than its competitors. In fact, some search engine watchdogs argue that Google has been unfairly targeted for offenses that other online giants commit to an equal or even greater degree.

"Google shouldn't be excused, but neither should it be singled out," says Danny Sullivan, a search industry analyst and writer for the Web site Search Engine Land. "Pointing to Google is a lazy response. We should be doing the harder job of looking at the state of the entire industry." In the case of privacy issues, Sullivan points out, Google has never leaked personal data or shared it with the government, despite the company's unprecedented mass of users' personal information.

That's more than Google's competitors -- like Time Warner's AOL, Yahoo! and Microsoft -- can claim. In August of last year, AOL gave the U.S. Department of Justice access to the search records of 650,000 of its users, the data from a total of 20 million searches. In January, several top search engines were subpoenaed to release millions of search queries as part of an ACLU lawsuit seeking to overturn a child pornography law.

Microsoft, AOL and Yahoo! all complied by releasing some data to the government. Google fought the order in court. Though the company's defense was based on protecting trade secrets, not user privacy, it nonetheless avoided revealing user data.

Matt Cutts, a senior software engineer for Google, responded to Privacy International in his blog, pointing out what seemed to be an unfair focus on Google. "The bottom-line takeaway message that I got from the report is that a company can work hard on privacy issues and still get dragged into the mud," Cutts wrote.

"Consider: In the last year or so, other companies gave users' queries to the government, leaked millions of raw user queries or even sold user queries and still came off better than Google did."

Aside from privacy concerns, many of the accusations that Google violates its "Don't be evil" mission statement have also surrounded its behavior in China, where the search engine has censored search results on politically sensitive topics like Taiwan or Tiananmen to appease the ruling Communist leadership.

But in terms of caving in to China's authoritarians, Yahoo! has in some respects been even more cooperative: The company is currently being sued for revealing personal information from e-mails and Web postings of two journalists, evidence that led to the dissidents' receiving 10-year prison sentences in 2003 and 2004.

The leading search engine in China's fast-growing search market, Beijing-based Baidu.com (nasdaq: BIDU - news - people ), has also behaved more controversially than Google on several fronts. Baidu has been criticized for charging its advertisers for egregious levels of fraudulent clicks: A study by China IntelliConsulting found that Baidu had click fraud rates of around 34%, compared with Google's rates of about 24% in China. Baidu also allows sites to pay for higher placement in search results, a tactic that Google has been careful to avoid.

Baidu, like Google, has had its share of copyright infringement accusations. The search engine offers an "MP3 search" function on its home page, allowing users to search for music files on the Web. That questionable practice led EMI, Sony BMG, Warner Music and Universal Music to sue Baidu for copyright infringement in 2005, though a Beijing judge ruled last year that Baidu could legally link to copyrighted materials.

Meanwhile, Baidu has faced little criticism for its strict censorship of search results or for restricting the entries to Baidupedia, a Wikipedia-like site, to politically harmless subjects.

By contrast, Reporters Without Borders called Google's decision in January of 2006 to censor results for politically sensitive terms a "black day" for China. The Free Tibet Campaign said in a statement that Google was "endorsing censorship and repression," and that its "Don't be evil" ethic was "in smithereens."

Greg Sterling, a search market analyst with Sterling Market Intelligence, says that's an example of how Google's "Don't be evil" motto has become an invitation to negative press, regardless of how it behaves compared with its competitors.

"It's one way that Google has made itself vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy," says Sterling. "The perception now is that Google is trying to just make as much money as it can, and that criticism wouldn't seem to be contradicting some fundamental principle in the absence of their 'Do no evil' statement."

So is it fair to hold a double standard for Google and other search companies? Kurt Opsahl of the Electronic Frontier Foundation argues that it is: Because of the company's unprecedented dominance of the search industry and its massive data collection, he says that a little evil from Google goes a long way.

"Google gets the most press because it's the biggest, and that's fair," Opsahl says. "Every decision they make has so much impact."

Andy Greenberg, Forbes