Google's world wide web wars

The giant of search engines has seen off its commercial rivals. Now it's locked in a series of increasingly fierce fights with assorted national governments

We use its technology dozens of times a day with scarcely a thought. But what is Google? Is it just a search engine? Is it a publisher, or merely a platform, an intermediary? A content kleptomaniac and parasite – in Rupert Murdoch's famous characterisation – or simply a stunning, hydra-headed incarnation of the zeitgeist? Google is a stunningly resourceful and ingenious servant – but is it on the way to becoming our master?

It was 14 years ago this month that Larry Page and Sergey Brin founded the company, and they show no signs of slowing down. At the headquarters in Mountain View, California this week, State Governor Jerry Brown signed a law allowing the company's driverless cars on to California's roads, following Nevada and Florida. "Today we're looking at science fiction becoming tomorrow's reality," Mr Brown gushed. "This is the place where new ideas, risk and imagination come together to really build the future."

But this was also the month that saw the first US Ambassador killed in living memory, as a direct result of the furious reaction to the crude video The Innocence of Muslims, a trailer for which was posted on YouTube, which is wholly owned by Google. Efforts by Islamic groups around the world to force the company to take the video down saw the head of Google's Brazilian operations, Fabio Jose Siva Coelho, arrested this week after the company lost a final appeal. He was released soon afterwards but must appear in court again.

Brazil has been a particularly turbulent market for Google, with more demands for content to be removed from the website than in any other country. This week Jose Guilherme Zagalio, the head of a commission set up by the Brazilian Bar Association to investigate information technology, said: "Our laws trying to govern the internet are outdated. It's not clear who is responsible for content, and that creates uncertainty."

But this is an issue that resonates around the globe. In Jerusalem, offended Muslims tried without success to persuade an Israeli court to grant a temporary injunction against Google, blocking the same video. "Freedom of expression is not freedom without limits," one of the plaintiffs, M K Taleb a-Sanaa, told media after the hearing. "People were actively hurt by this. It can't be that because [the courts] are not Muslim [they] won't worry about the feelings of Muslims." Inside court, Mr Sanaa compared the Innocence of Muslims trailer to a hypothetical film making light of the Holocaust. He argued that the Israeli courts would waste no time forcing Google to remove material deemed offensive to Jews.

Google's lawyer dodged that awkward line of attack. The point, according to Hagit Blaiberg, was that Google was not a publisher of offensive videos or anything else: it was merely an engine which could be used to search for anything. Google content was not out there in the public domain like an advertisement on a billboard. "It's a choice, they have to go to it," she said.

Google later commented that the plaintiffs were pursuing the wrong party: they should be suing the people who made the movie, because even if Google took the film down, people would be able to watch it on other sites, thereby arbitrarily punishing Google for the success of its search engine.

The argument will rumble on, but Google's claim to be just another search engine is starting to seem increasingly unconvincing. Fourteen years after its winningly spare and restrained home page entered our lives, its dominance of search is close to total. That's why Google was the target of the case launched in Berlin yesterday by the former Formula 1 boss Max Mosley, claiming the search engine is breaking German privacy laws by providing links to websites with videos of him at a sado-masochistic sex party.

Google's freedom of expression defence plays well in the US, where it chimes with the First Amendment. But such battles are less easily won elsewhere, and there are also copyright claims and anti-trust cases to worry about, in the EU and the US. So the company has recently been working overtime to build strong teams of lawyers, academics and professional lobbyists to fight its corner.

In Google's new office in Berlin's famous Unter den Linden, brightly coloured robots cluster in plexiglass cases, young, casual employees whizz on scooters down corridors decorated with cityscape murals, and the conference rooms are named after hip Berlin clubs. But behind the easygoing scenes, a deadly serious campaign to nail German opinion at the highest level is under way.

With the European Commission mulling a new data privacy regulation that would establish a "right to be forgotten" online, and the German Cabinet approving a rule giving publishers the right to charge search engines when they list articles together with a short text, Google risks seeing the ground it has so smartly appropriated bit by bit clawed back.

Rupert Murdoch (who recently admitted defeat on the question of allowing Google access to articles from The Times and The Sunday Times) has described the company as a "content kleptomaniac". If he is right, its impunity may not last much longer. But Google is not giving in without a fight.

Der Spiegel revealed some of the company's plans this week. Annette Kroeber-Riehl, the leader of seven lobbyists in the new office, says the company aims to be "transparent and open". But the magazine claims to have detected opacity and manipulation in the way Google is trying to make friends and influence people.

In autumn 2010, a Google-funded think-tank called Collaboratory invited 41 experts to discuss the crucial issue of copyright. But according to one of the invited experts, Stefan Herwig, who runs a music label, the "guidelines" in the final document that came out of the meeting did not represent the expert discussions but were drawn up separately by a team of nine. "We were merely window dressing," he commented.

Crucially, the guidelines described search engines like Google as "intermediaries" – a term that had not come up in their discussions. The interests of these "intermediaries", the guidelines said, should be "considered equally" with those of creators and users, because they "promote or enable the availability of creative property through secondary offerings." Five of the experts objected to the use of "intermediaries", and expressed surprise that it was in the document. "To some extent," said Herwig, "Google produced the desired results itself."

The man who assembled the guidelines' drafting group, Till Kreutzer, is himself closely connected with Google, having created the Initiative Against Ancillary Copyright, which Google co-founded.

Other examples of the company's efforts to influence public debate include the Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society, founded last year, to which Google contributed €4.5m (£2.9m). "What does it mean when a company that has an excessively large amount of influence on everyday activities on the internet is also involved in shaping the public discourse?" Der Spiegel asks. "And what happens when a company which has a quasi-monopoly as a search engine also threatens to gain a quasi-monopoly when it comes to explaining the internet?"

For 14 years, Google has been deft at dodging the sort of image issues which have clung to Microsoft and other tech giants. It "has been able to make itself look like the good guy" writes US tech writer Don Reisinger. But for how much longer?

Google provides us with a wonderfully clear window on the world – but at the same time goes to considerable lengths to control the way it is seen from the outside. As the legal challenges mount up, it is building itself a powerful, largely invisible fortress.

Sport
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
footballPete Jenson co-ghost wrote Suarez’s autobiography and reveals how desperate he's been to return
News
newsMcKamey Manor says 'there is no escape until the tour is completed'
Voices
Hunted: A stag lies dead on Jura, where David Cameron holidays and has himself stalked deer
voicesThe Scotland I know is becoming a playground for the rich
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
newsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
News
Laurence Easeman and Russell Brand
people
Sport
Fans of Dulwich Hamlet FC at their ground Champion Hill
footballFans are rejecting the £2,000 season tickets, officious stewarding, and airline-stadium sponsorship
News
Shami Chakrabarti
people
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
filmBenedict Cumberbatch reignites Star Wars 7 rumours
Sport
football
News
news
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

    £40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

    ***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

    £30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

    ***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

    £35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

    Senior Software Engineer - C#, VB.Net, ASP.Net - Kingston, Sur

    £50000 - £60000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Senior Software Engineer - C#, VB.N...

    Day In a Page

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker