As if Google didn’t have enough on its plate already, this week saw the web giant fighting hard to keep its head above water on two separate fronts — privacy and China. The first involved ongoing criticism and potential legal action against the company as a result of its harvesting of personal data from open wireless networks passed by its Street View cars. The second, meanwhile, involved the negotiations the company has been conducting with the Chinese government to retain its licence to operate in that country. Google won small victories on both fronts, but neither war is close to being over. If anything, these incidents only further underscore the fact that, when you’re the size of Google, with operations that span the globe and affect millions of people’s daily lives, no battle can be considered small.
Wi-Fi and privacy
The wireless privacy war may be one of the biggest blunders Google has made in recent years. While its Street View cars were driving around the 30 countries in which the street-level imagery service is available, they were also tracking the location of wireless networks used by individuals and businesses. Google says it didn’t intend to capture personally identifiable information, but did so accidentally — triggering multiple privacy-related investigations in a number of countries.
While Australia said this week that it had agreed to settle its investigation of Google’s behavior, after the company posted a public apology, Google may not have it as easy with other countries. German officials are apparently considering a criminal investigation over breach of privacy, while the U.S. Federal Trade Commission has said it may investigate. The company faces a class-action lawsuit in the U.S. as well. Even in Australia, federal police said that they may pursue legal action against the web giant.
But the biggest risk for Google here is that many of these countries are now likely to be suspicious about future services from the company, which, of course, would be damaging at a time when Google is breaking ground in new markets such as mobile and trying to get ahead of competitors like Apple and Facebook.
China and ethics
Ever since Google announced in January that it was going to stop filtering its search results in China, something required of all search engines, the company has been caught between a rock and a hard place: On the one hand, it wants to maintain some kind of relationship with China because the country is such as massive and growing market. That involves pacifying the Chinese authorities. At the same time, however, Google wants to maintain some kind of commitment to its ethical principles, which don’t sit well with deferring to a totalitarian state that subjugates its own citizens.
Google managed to find a middle ground this week, as evidenced by the fact that the Chinese authorities approved the company’s licence to operate in China, which has to be renewed every year. But this is unlikely to be the last time the company has to find a balance between its business interests and its ethical principles, and in fact that task is likely to get harder rather than easier over time.
The bottom line
Both of these incidents reinforce just how large Google’s problems have become now that it operates on a worldwide level. When you are that size, and have as much clout in the online world as it does, there are no small problems — only big ones that haven’t made themselves obvious yet. When Google makes a mistake with some software involved in one of its services, it doesn’t just look bad, it leads to multiple investigations by governments and regulators in half a dozen countries. And when it comes to China, the company can’t just open an office; instead, it has to effectively operate the way another nation would if it was trying to curry favor with the government, by sending ambassadors to negotiate terms for a cease-fire. And those things are unlikely to change as Google tries to enter more new businesses and markets.