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Google’s moves raise questions about ‘don’t be evil’ motto

By Mike Swift, San Jose Mercury News –

SAN JOSE, Calif. — With its “Don’t Be Evil” motto, Google Inc. has always held itself to a higher moral standard.

Now Google observers, including many longtime admirers of the search giant, say the Mountain View, Calif., company is behaving more like something it vowed never to become: a conventional company where the bottom line drives decisions.

The signs of that transformation in recent months include an illegal ad deal, a string of privacy violations, an altered privacy policy that a key regulator called “brutal” for consumers and a change in search results that appear to favor Google’s own social network, Google+, over competitors.

Google has about 12 times the revenue, 11 times the employees and arguably far more power over the Internet than it had when it proclaimed its idealism and went public in 2004. But as the Internet evolves to a more social and mobile Web where a search engine can no longer tie everything together, Google is threatened as never before. The company is locked in an intense competition with rivals such as Facebook Inc. and Apple Inc., and it faces a patent-lawyer gutter fight with Microsoft Corp. and Oracle Corp. over the intellectual property behind its crucial Android mobile operating system.

“I hesitate to think they’ve gotten ‘evil,’ because they never were that ‘good’ to begin with,” said Danny Sullivan, editor-in-chief of Search Engine Land, a website that covers search news. “But I do think it marks a much more aggressive company, a company that is not hesitant to do things, even if those things might draw more criticism than in the past.”

Last year, the U.S. Department of Justice required Google to forfeit $500 million for hosting ads from online Canadian pharmacies that led to the illegal importation of prescription drugs, and the Federal Trade Commission slapped the company with an order requiring 20 years of independent privacy monitoring after a privacy breach with Google’s Buzz social network.

In January, the world’s dominant search company was accused of compromising its most basic values of fairness and objectivity by highlighting results from its Google+ social network over competitors like Twitter and Facebook.

Then, in February, Stanford University researcher Jonathan Mayer caught Google bypassing the privacy settings in Apple’s Safari browser.

And, later that month, 36 state attorneys general wrote Google to complain that privacy plans the company had publicly claimed benefited consumers were in fact an “invasion of privacy.” European regulators said Google’s changes violate European law, and FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz called Google’s take-it-or-leave-it stance a “somewhat brutal choice” for consumers. On March 1, Google enacted the changes anyway.

To many veteran Google watchers, that pattern of behavior represented a distinct break from the past for a company that promised its search results would be “objective” and “unbiased,” and invoked the famous phrase “Don’t Be Evil” in a seminal letter to shareholders before its 2004 IPO, in which co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin said: “Google is not a conventional company. We do not intend to become one.”

Google says it has not compromised its values, and that its recent privacy stumbles, such as the Buzz social network that led to the FTC order and the Safari breach, are simple mistakes caused by trying to move too quickly in the innovation race with its competitors.

“It’s important to separate shortcomings from strategic decisions, like the decision to simplify our privacy policy or the launch of Search plus (Your World),” said Jill Hazelbaker, a Google spokeswoman. “There is no question we are moving faster, and this increased velocity has generally come with improved execution. Particularly in technology, fortune usually favors the fastest innovators.

“We take a long-term view, and the end goal is one simple, beautiful Google experience,” she said.

To be sure, Google continues to do many “Googley” things for the social good, such as investing more than $900 million in green energy, or hosting a program in which the company regularly welcomes young minority Internet entrepreneurs from around the country to present their ideas at the Googleplex. But Google’s leaders — particularly Page, who returned to the role of CEO a year ago — appear increasingly willing, observers said in a series of interviews in recent weeks, to make the same choices conventional companies do, choosing business imperatives over social values.

“In a certain sense, Google is being held to a higher standard,” said Jon Fox of consumer advocacy group CalPIRG, referring to Google’s privacy stumbles. “When Facebook does really nasty things, people are like, ‘Oh well, it’s Facebook, what can you expect from them?’ But as Google is maturing, they are running up against that problem more and more of not doing evil.”

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