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.
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