-- Email. It offers electronic mail service through Gmail.
-- Social network. It launched Google+ as an answer to Facebook.
-- Maps. It offers images, including your backyard, the Earth, the moon and the stars.
-- Innovation. On the drawing board is the driverless car, wearable computer eyeglasses, and, according to Time, a space elevator to launch people and payloads into space without rockets.
"In the digital era, Google is your constant partner," said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a Washington-based consumer privacy advocate.
A lift from taxpayers
Google has been a bright spot in an otherwise lackluster economy. Last year, it generated $50.2 billion in revenue, putting it on par with the gross domestic product of Bulgaria, which had the world's 75th biggest economy. It made a net profit of $10.7 billion. And it had $50 billion in cash, cash equivalents and marketable securities as of March 31, according to financial statements.
Not including the new employees from last year's acquisition of Motorola Mobility, Google employed 37,544 workers in 2012, up 16 percent from 2011. It is Fortune magazine's reigning best place to work. And it has its own innovation laboratory, offering a home for privately funded research that would resonate with New Jersey's veterans of Bell Labs.
Yet taxpayers have aided its expansion. Google built a data center in Lenoir, N.C., in 2007 after the state provided subsidies worth tens of millions of dollars. Among them: North Carolina exempted the company from paying retail sales and use taxes to build and operate the center, according to a lawsuit filed by taxpayer advocates.
The incentives didn't benefit the public; they only aided a private company, violating the state constitution, the plaintiffs said. Google won the lawsuit. The company spent $600 million on the data center, which now has 110 jobs.
Google faced similar complaints of favoritism in Kansas City, where it is building Google Fiber, providing Internet speeds at more than 100 times faster than what's available today -- at what it said was a competitive price.
The city agreed to provide a team of employees dedicated to the project. It allowed Google to use city-owned office space rent-free. And it agreed not to charge Google for access to its infrastructure, according to the development agreement that was provided by Netcompetition.org, whose members include Google competitors Sprint and Comcast. (Scott Cleland is chairman of Netcompetition).
Even free-market advocates, who would normally cheer the idea of business-friendly government agencies, are wary of incentive programs geared toward a specific company.
"It tends to undermine competition and lead to monopolistic behavior, so that means higher prices for consumers, potentially higher profits for producers," said Matt Mitchell, senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center, a free-market-oriented research group at George Mason University in Arlington, Va.
Pursuing such deals isn't cheap. Mitchell said it requires companies to hire lawyers and lobbyists to either obtain the incentives or to fight to keep them. And it changes the rules of the game.
"It's sort of unfair, even before you get to the economics," he said.
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