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Google, 10 years in: big, friendly giant or a greedy Goliath?


Every day, all over the world, millions of us use Google. Founded 10 years ago by two students, it is now so powerful that it threatens to swallow up all other media while global leaders queue for its blessing. But just as we seek knowledge from Google, so Google gleans secrets from us. Has the cool baby grown up into a sinister corporate threat to privacy? David Smith reports

Eagerly they came - the young, the ambitious, the smartest of the smart. They queued impatiently and crowded into the rafters above Charlie's Cafe at the 'Googleplex', the curving glass and steel cathedral of the internet age. Finally, laptops snapped shut and the room hushed. It was time for Barack Obama to preach to the converted. 'There is something improbable about this gathering,' said the presidential hopeful, gazing around a sea of T-shirts at Google's Californian headquarters. 'What we share is a belief in changing the world from the bottom up.'

It was last November and Obama was asked whether he lacked political experience. He compared himself with the founders of Google, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who a decade ago were university students with a big dream. 'I suppose Sergey and Larry did not have a lot of experience starting a Fortune 100 company,' he said.

The rock star of American politics resonates at Google. Nicole Resz, a 26-year-old employee, said: 'He's fresh, he's new. There's something about him that's Google-like.' He was also the seventh presidential candidate to visit the company, following John McCain and Hillary Clinton, each seemingly determined to prove they had achieved that summit of modern aspiration - to be 'Google-like'.

Can anyone become President of the United States without the patronage of Google? It was once a ridiculous question, but not any more. The fastest growing company in history is also arguably the most powerful. It has the potential to reach into every corner of our lives, from the way we get news, watch entertainment and do our jobs to the way we communicate, seek information and comprehend the world. Its clean white homepage and breezy colourful logo have become so embedded in our psyches that we 'google' without thinking (and use 'google' as a verb). I think, therefore I google.

Ten years ago next month, in an innocuous suburban garage, Page and Brin, two geeky students at Stanford University, founded a company called Google. They would go on to create what is regularly voted the world's top brand, earn accolades as the world's best employers and become billionaires many times over. They would also, say their critics, cut a swathe through the laws of copyright, threaten to devour media like a 'digital Murdoch' and harvest more of our secrets than any totalitarian government - smashing the core certainties of advertising executives, book publishers, newspaper owners, television moguls and civil libertarians.

Brin and Page's mission is to 'organise the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful'. They are doing it every minute of every day in indexed web searches, in blogs, in books, in email, in maps, in news, in photos, in videos, in their own encyclopedia. They have built a giant electronic brain made up of farms of computer servers connected around the world, a brain that learns and gains intelligence every time someone uses Google.

It is the stuff of science fiction and it all happened so fast that no one could quite grasp it, still less try to stop it. Now all of us, from the farmer in Africa switching on his first internet connection to the next President of the United States, are learning to live in a Google world. It is conceivable that future historians will regard the first day of Google Inc on 7 September 1998, and not 11 September 2001, as the true dawn of the 21st century.

'I don't think it's possible to exaggerate the significance of this thing,' says Andrew Keen, a British-born author and entrepreneur in California's Silicon Valley, cradle of the hi-tech boom. 'Every time I think of it, I'm amazed at every level. They're absolutely in the business of revolutionising the nature of knowledge; search has become integral in the way we think and act. In 50 or 100 years' time, when the real histories get written of the internet, it will start with those two boys at Stanford.'

But Keen has a warning about the gatekeepers of cyberspace. 'They have amassed more information about people in 10 years than all the governments of the world put together. They make the Stasi and the KGB look like the innocent old granny next door. This is of immense significance. If someone evil took them over, they could easily become Big Brother.'

Google's recent acquisition of an online advertising company called DoubleClick set alarm bells ringing. There were objections that it would give the company a near monopoly of the online ad market, widening its scope to collect users' personal data, but Google's powerful lobbyists helped ensure the deal was cleared by regulators in America and Europe. Politicians, such as the Democratic senator Herb Kohl, have belatedly started to ask whether it is growing too fast too soon. Last week America's House Committee on Energy and Commerce heard evidence of how Google and other companies track users' web surfing behaviour.

Search engines are probably more important than ever to navigate the hyper-inflating internet: Google recently catalogued its trillionth web page. The company does not dominate in every country, notably China, but has just improved its share of the American market to 70 per cent. The technical wizardry surging through its colossal data centres to deliver instant results, however, only goes halfway to explaining how this altruistic start-up came to be seen as a corporate Death Star.

From the beginning Page and Brin wanted to make information available for free and did not care much for business. They were backed by investment capital for the first three years and made virtually no profit. It was only when Google started placing relevant adverts beside its search results, and on other websites, that dollars came pouring in by the million and billion. It was a model that redefined the way business is done on the web for all sorts of participants: build traffic by giving content away for free, then make money from advertising. The formula is said to account for 99 per cent of Google's annual revenue of $16.6bn and profits of $4.2bn.

The change has rattled old certainties and some producers of content have cried foul. They accuse Google of infringing copyright by using material without their permission or failing to give them a fair share of the profits. The debate will only intensify as eyeballs turn away from television and newspapers towards computer screens, where Google has an estimated two-thirds market share. Yet the company has also begun using its expertise to sell adverts in the old media of newspapers, radio and TV.

Furthermore, when Google said all the world's information, it really meant all. Google News, launched in 2002, aggregates breaking stories from traditional media sources around the world. Newspapers complain that their hard-won exclusives are being hijacked to boost Google's profits. A group of Belgian papers successfully argued in court that the company stored their content without paying or asking permission and are now seeking damages of £39m. In 2004 Google announced partnerships with leading libraries and universities to scan digitally millions of books from their collections. Today a visitor to Google Book Search can read on screen or download the full text of Oliver Twist, The Wealth of Nations or innumerable other out-of-copyright titles. A search will also bring up parts of books still in copyright.

Google Maps and Google Earth, launched in 2005, offer an astonishing interactive map of the planet, stitched together from aerial and satellite footage licenced from Nasa and various private companies. Google Street View, released in America last year, takes this a step further by providing photographs taken at eye level, which has prompted media alarm about invasion of privacy; the company insists the UK version, yet to launch, will obscure faces and licence plates.

But it was Google's acquisition in 2006 of YouTube, the phenomenally popular video sharing site, that caught most attention as a disrupter of the old media landscape. Its willingness to let people post and watch video clips for free has panicked the TV and film industries and provoked a $1bn lawsuit from the US entertainment group Viacom for 'massive copyright infringement'.

Google's tentacles are everywhere. It runs services for blogging, email, instant messaging, shopping and social networking. It offers a suite of word processing, spreadsheet and other tools to rival Microsoft's products in the workplace. It is building a software platform for mobile phones that may challenge Apple's iPhone and others. It has just launched Knol, a peer-reviewed encyclopedia to take on Wikipedia. In America, Google Health enables users to maintain their own medical records. The company is also working on language translation, speech recognition and video search. Brin and Page even have their eyes on space: they have offered a $20m prize to anyone who can make a privately financed spacecraft able to land on the moon.

Could this be too much responsibility for any single institution, let alone a multinational corporation? Google's informal motto, 'Don't be evil', is put to the test every day. An entity born in the laid-back utopianism of northern California now finds itself a $157bn global business empire, chasing profits, fighting or gobbling up competitors, blowing old business models away like matchsticks. And just as coal, steel and oil barons were once courted by politicians, today it is the turn of the masters of information. There is a political love affair going on with Google that both reflects and reinforces its position at front and centre of world affairs.

Shortly after Obama's pilgrimage to the 'Googleplex', it was the turn of David Cameron. Cameron was accompanied there by Steve Hilton, his director of strategy, who has since moved permanently to California with his wife, Rachel Whetstone, Google's vice-president of global communications and public affairs (she is also godmother to Cameron's eldest son, Ivan). Andrew Orlowski, executive editor of the technology website The Register, says: 'The web is a secular religion at the moment and politicians go to pray at events like the Google Zeitgeist conference. Any politician who wants to brand himself as a forward-looking person will get himself photographed with the Google boys.'

Washington, also, is keen to bathe in Google's golden light. Al Gore, the former Vice-President, is a long-time senior adviser at the company. Obama has been taking economic advice from Google CEO Eric Schmidt and received generous donations from Google and its staff. Google will be omnipresent at the Democratic and Republican national conventions, providing software for delegates such as calendars, email and graphics. 'Google has moved into the political world this year,' says its director of policy communications, Bob Boorstin, a former member of the Clinton administration.

Google's staff in Washington include five lobbyists, among them Pablo Chavez, former general counsel for John McCain. This year Google moved into new 27,000-square-foot headquarters in one of Washington's most fashionable, eco-friendly buildings. Visiting senators and congressmen can now share in the famed 'googly' experience of free gourmet lunches, giant plasma screens and a game room, named 'Camp David', stocked with an Xbox 360 and pingpong.

None of this much impressed Jeff Chester, the executive director of the small but influential Center for Digital Democracy, when he was invited there. 'It puts all the other lobbying operations to shame,' he says. 'They invite politicians into their Washington HQ to give advice on using Google to win re-election. It is the darling of the Democratic Party and there's no doubt that a win by Obama will strengthen Google's position in Washington.'

Boorstin dismisses the claims, pointing out that rivals such as Microsoft, AT&T and Verizon spend far more on lobbying and have been doing so much longer. He adds: 'It's a statement I find both funny and pathetic.'

Chester, however, is an outspoken critic on a crusade. He continues: 'Google have been very hypocritical. They try to place a digital halo around their activities. They should be at the forefront of acknowledging that these are the most powerful marketing tools around and there should be safeguards in place. Google claims it's there to provide information but it's really there to collect data and provide advertising, and they simply can't own up to it.'

These concerns do not apply to America alone. As chairman of the parliamentary Culture, Media and Sport Committee, John Whittingdale has clashed with Google several times, including most recently over whether YouTube should do more to block offensive content. 'There's no doubt they are extraordinarily powerful,' he says. 'There is concern about their dominance in online advertising. When someone is in such a strong position, you have to at least look at it. There is also the issue of behaviourally targeted advertising [the supply of ads deemed relevant based on the user's browsing history] which needs a code of conduct.'

Like others before him, Whittingdale was struck by the peculiarity of Google's internal culture when he visited the Californian HQ. 'It's a bit like a cross between The Stepford Wives and Logan's Run: lots of happy people in shorts always smiling, and nobody over 40. All these bright young graduates playing softball in grounds while having great thoughts.'

Google's laid-back ambience is credited as a key part of its success. Free perks for staff include three healthy meals a day, massages and laundry services as well as an on-site gym and swimming pool. Casually dressed engineers are often seen playing pool, volleyball or roller hockey, or sprawling on multi-coloured bean bags.

Despite its environmental projects and its philanthropic arm, the perception of Google is slowly morphing from plucky David to sinister Goliath. In the words of former Intel chief executive Andy Grove, it is increasingly seen as a company 'on steroids, with a finger in every industry'. From a garage in suburbia, they are saying, came the company that ate the world.

Number 232, Santa Margarita Avenue, Menlo Park, California, looks like another ordinary house in another ordinary street. Susan Wojcicki bought the four-bedroom property for about $600,000 in 1998 and rented out the garage to two Stanford students for $1,700 a month to help with the mortgage. Larry Page and Sergey Brin had met three years earlier when Brin was a tour guide for new students at Stanford University and Page was in his group. At first the pair, both born in 1973, found each other 'obnoxious'. But it was the start of a lucrative friendship.

Page was interested in the maths of the fledgling world wide web and began studying how it linked together. His great insight was to think about websites like academic papers, which build arguments through citations of previous papers (and list them in the footnotes). Similarly, websites contain links which, when clicked on, take the user to another website. Page realised that the number of links to a page would be a useful guide to its relative importance. He worked with the Russian-born Brin to create an unfathomably complex algorithm which could rank pages in terms of relevance, then turn it into a search engine for the web. The first version of Google - named after googol, the term for 1 followed by 100 zeros - was released on the Stanford website in August 1996.

Page and Brin have been described as the Thomas Edisons of the internet. Like many of history's great inventors, they were in the right place at the right time, riding the wave of the dotcom boom and riding out the subsequent crash. The co-founders never meant to build a business but now enjoy the fruits of success, flying around the world in a Boeing 767, kitesurfing and pursuing passions such as the environment: both own Toyota Prius cars. Brin and Page remain joint presidents, Brin in charge of technology, Page responsible for product launches, but the rapid growth of recent years has been steered by chief executive Eric Schmidt, 53, who came on board in 2001 as the commercial 'brain', negotiating the founders' evangelism and the shareholders' thirst for profits. It has been jokingly said that he provides 'adult supervision'.

Now the biggest issue facing Google - the one that an unnamed Google executive has dubbed the 'atom bomb' - is privacy. Google is the most efficient information-gathering machine ever built. Every time you use it to search the web, the query you typed, the time and date, and the IP address and unique 'cookie' ID assigned to your computer are recorded and retained for 18 months. If you log in to one of Google's personalised services, such as Google Checkout, the company collects data tied to your sign-in. Its main objective is to learn about your preferences so it can give you better search results (did you mean 'Paris Hilton' the celebrity, or the hotel?) and target you with relevant adverts.

Peter Fleischer, Google's global privacy counsel, says the company is making every effort to be transparent about what data it is gathering, including a series of explanatory videos on YouTube. He goes on: 'We offer services in two flavours. If you don't sign in, but go straight to search, then for all essential purposes the information is anonymous. If you do sign in, it'll remember your browsing history and give you the benefits of personalised search. Even for these services you can use a pseudonym: Google doesn't need to know and doesn't want to know your real name.' It is true that Google doesn't force anyone to reveal anything. But to quote a book currently popular among politicians, its users are 'nudged' towards entering more and more information about themselves in exchange for personalised services. Google can save you time and money, find a restaurant to your taste or a chemist to cure your illness, but only if it knows you well enough. Help it to help you; that is the siren song. Schmidt raised eyebrows on a trip to London last year when he declared: 'We cannot even answer the most basic questions about you because we don't know enough about you. The goal is to enable Google users to be able to ask questions such as "What shall I do tomorrow?" and "What job should I take?" This is the most important aspect of Google's expansion.'

A month later, the human rights watchdog Privacy International ranked the company bottom in a major survey of how securely the leading internet companies handle their users' personal information. Liberty, the civil liberties organisation, and the National Consumer Council have also expressed concern.

These are early shots in a long war over how much Google the world can stomach. Many within the technology industry are unwilling to call on government to clip its wings because it goes against their faith in an open internet, free of state interference. But the European Parliament is already scrutinising Google, and some believe it is only a matter of time before Ofcom, the media regulator in Britain, is forced to intervene. Orlowski of The Register says: 'It's the big regulatory issue of the next 10 years: how politicians deal with Google. If the web is as important as the politicians say, it seems odd that one company sets the price and defines the terms of business.'

Others believe the free market will throw up alternatives, just as it did to the mighty Microsoft. Vasanthan Dasan, one of the web's pioneers and now an engineer at Sun Microsystems, perceives three threats to Google's dominance. 'First, social networks such as Facebook and MySpace are transforming information about you in a much more targeted and finely grained way; Google is behind on that. Second, mobile phones will become increasingly useful for information, and Google is behind on that too. Finally, there are quite a few companies working on personal genomics: knowing what your genes are so can you see your profile for genetic diseases and find customised medicine. Google will have a lot of challenges.'

But what also seems certain is that, along with its sway over advertising, media and publishing, Google will seek to conquer domains that no one but Page and Brin have even dreamed of. In a world where television schedules are obsolete and content can be summoned on demand, for example, a search engine that can find the clip or programme you want will be more important than ever.

'The problem with Google now is that they have to keep growing,' says Andrew Keen. 'If they wanted to, they could destroy the publishing business and kill newspapers. Everything they do has a profound impact. It's like that saying about America: when Google sneezes, the rest of the world catches a cold.'

Born into the idealism of Silicon Valley, now courted by candidates for the White House, Google is not like other companies. It is colonising and drilling the mental space, a Shell or BP of information. Its casually dressed young staff, generally the brightest and best, have always typically asked: 'Why not?' It is now employing some wiser heads to explain why sometimes the answer really does have to be 'not'. It may already be too late. The thing of wonder that Page and Brin gave the world 10 years ago became an 800lb gorilla in record time. But no one remembered to ask - what happens when a gorilla just keeps growing and growing?

Google by numbers

Googol Mathematical term for the figure 1 followed by a hundred zeros, after which Brin and Page named their company (complete with spelling mistake).

4 Number of people in the company when it started (in a garage in Menlo Park, California, in September 1998).

19,604 Number of 'Googlers' (employees) worldwide, many of whom work at the 'Googleplex', the kooky HQ in Santa Clara, CA.

70:30 Ratio of male to female employees.

60% Proportion of worldwide internet searches made on Google.

86% Proportion of total UK searches made on Google.

25,000 Number of web pages indexed by Google early on; today it's in the billions. Each time the company catalogues the web, the index grows by 10-25 per cent.

£0 Amount it costs Google staff to eat (breakfast, lunch and dinner are free).

$157 billion Google's current market value.

40% Proportion of online advertising controlled by Google.

1 Days per week Google engineers are encouraged to spend on other projects that interest them. Google News is said to have resulted from this policy.

112 Number of languages Google 'speaks', allowing users to set their homepage to Latin and, of course, Klingon.

1 million+ Number of CVs sent to Google every year from would-be employees.




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