Thomas Sutcliffe: Success, censorship and the internet

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The Independent Online

Poor Google. Well... all right then. "Poor" is scarcely the word for a company valued at around £68bn - or for one which has established such dominance in its field that it has effectively become synonymous with it. Everyday speech reflects its commanding position: nobody yahoos anything but people google every day - to such an extent that a small part of Google's cash mountain is spent on dissuading newspapers and lexicographers from turning its brand name into a common-or-garden verb. They want to protect their capital in more senses than one. Not "poor" then. But perhaps we need some other word - devoid of naive sympathy or geeky adulation - to acknowledge the plight of a company which has succeeded itself into difficulties.

The latest of these is the revelation that Google agreed to censor political content on its Chinese website - so that Chinese googlers will find no links to search terms such as "Falun Gong" or "Tibet". The very fact that this was reported so widely is evidence in itself of the unusual position the company occupies in its users' affections. Microsoft and Yahoo already block searches the Chinese government doesn't like, but we then we don't really expect much better from them, anymore than we expected more of Rupert Murdoch when he agreed to drop news coverage to get the Star cable channel in front of Chinese viewers. If your mission statement is "Do No Evil", you must expect a little disappointment when you assist the secret policemen with their work

Just three days before it was being attacked for censorship, though, Google was being attacked for not censoring enough. When it launched its new Google Video service - just one of a startling number of product extensions in recent months - Google made it clear that it would vet the films downloaded by users for reasons of taste and decency and to prevent the promotion of "hate and violence". Despite that, early browsers quickly found unsimulated bare-knuckle fights and clips of teenage girls laying into each other without inhibition.

What's more, three days before that, Google's share price had dropped steeply after the news that the US Department of Justice intended to sue the company to get hold of the records of a typical week's web searches, as well as a million addresses in the company's database. Google plans to resist this demand, arguing that it would infringe its customers First Amendment rights - not to mention handing its rivals valuable commercial information on a plate. But who knows what they will do if the courts rule against them?

Taken together, this string of stories does not suggest that, beneath the mask of West Coast idealism, Google is just like every other grasping corporate entity, prepared to sell out a utopian vision of a free-trade in information whenever its profits are threatened. What it suggests is that if you're the first to reach a solution, you're very likely to be the first to encounter the problems that virtually all solutions bring in their wake. And as a global emblem for the internet's powers to connect people with what they want to find - for good or ill - Google had better get used to playing the Promethean part in all this. While mankind enjoyed the fire - or used it to burn down its enemy's houses - Prometheus was staked to a rock while vultures pecked at his liver. It might be wise to change the motto to something less pious and more plaintive: "Did some good too, remember."

A satanic suggestion for George

As George Galloway ponders his future, he may be intrigued to learn that Bez, the Happy Mondays' former rhythm chimp and alumnus of the Big Brother house, has been invited to take part in the BBC's indie-pop Passion, planned for the streets of Manchester this Easter. Bez will process through the streets, along with other performers, singing pertinent hits. Mary Magdalene is to sing the Buzzcock's "Ever Fallen In Love" and Jesus will cover The Smiths' "Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now" as he is lashed by Roman soldiers. Bez is to play one of the disciples, but other parts remain vacant. Judging by his self-canonisation on Big Brother ("When people are damaged I instinctively want to help them..."), George, right, wouldn't settle for less than the Messiah, but Mel Gibson's inclusion of Satan in his film The Passion ... suggests another possibility. Easy enough to add some horns and a tail to the red leotard. And how about EMF's "Unbelievable" as the song?

The Lib Dem leadership contest is coming to resemble a bizarre scratch-card game. On the surface we are offered unrevealing images of men for whom nothing is as arousing as tabling a second reading amendment. Then the tabloids take a coin to the picture and expose the human beneath. I did feel some sympathy for Simon Hughes, though - forced to choose between candour and our crude sexual taxonomies. Was he lying to say he wasn't gay? I've voted Labour in my lifetime, and even enjoyed the sensation, but if you described me as a Labour supporter I would deny the charge with a clear conscience. Acts are simple. Identities - which is what Hughes was asked about - are more complicated.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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