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the Brazilian Bar Association to investigate information technology, said: "Our laws trying to govern the internet are outdated.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.
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