How evil is Google?

Harper’s Magazine recently commented on how Google’s environmentally-friendly policies really involve sucking up as much cheap electricity as possible, with little regard to how it is generated, as long as the location is close to a hydroelectric dam. Additionally, Google’s “server farms” bring little by way of employment for local towns and cities. Who needs to maintain servers these days when anything software-related can be done from as far away as India? Increasingly, pundits, journalists and bloggers question the morality of Google, especially as it pioneers its way into new industries, quickly becoming the de facto standard. Google’s model has always been “don’t be evil.”

Perhaps the best-documented of its violations of this mantra are its censorship policies in China, and to a lesser extent in Germany and France. In China, Google censors content and search results at the beck and call of the Chinese government. In Germany and France, the company simply blocks searches for “Holocaust denial”-related searches. Google representatives argue that the search engine provides more value to citizens, even with censorship, than not to have it at all.

From my point of view, Google, regardless of the faults and merits of their business plans, have made a great number of services available to the online community for free. Its search-engine functions obviously include scanned copies of many books, programming code, news, scientific research articles and many others. Google owns YouTube, and is making moves to purchase Skype as well, perhaps integrating it with Gmail and Google Talk in the future. Gmail arguably provides the most comprehensive e-mail client on the planet, and of course it’s free. Most Gmail users, assuming they have forwarding properly configured, would never consider returning to the likes of Outlook, Apple Mail or Thunderbird. Google has also attempted to wage war against Microsoft and its Office suite of applications by providing equally functional online alternatives that even allow for easy, real-time collaboration. Google Maps and Google Earth not only allow for easy navigation on cellphones and laptops alike, but an Economist reporter discovered an alleged new spy satellite in Russia, near the Estonian border.

It seems that Google’s most helpful contributions to society come in two new, cellphone-related forms. Although many people are unaware, “bunny ears” analog TV as we know it will cease to exist in 2009. Consequently, the FCC, who regulates the radio spectrum in the US, has just sold off all of what will become unused spectrum to numerous telecom companies such as AT&T, Sprint and Verizon. Google set an early bid of $4.6 billion for the “C” block, claiming that it would outbid any carrier who would limit use of the spectrum to proprietary technologies. Republicans and FCC officials are now retroactively questioning the move, but Google allowed Verizon to ultimately win the 700 mHz slice of spectrum — yes, those are the same megahertz that you might have seen on your old cordless phone.

It is still unclear if Verizon’s other major headlines were related, but Verizon has chosen to use the LTE — long term evolution — standard, which is the successor to all GSM-related technologies that T-Mobile and AT&T use for mobile voice and data access today. If you look closely at your Verizon phone, you’ll notice that it says CDMA, EV-DO or Qualcomm on it somewhere. These were the competing, less popular and proprietary standards. Verizon had already made claims that even on its CDMA — non-GSM — network, it would allow use of SIM cards so that users could freely and easily switch between Verizon and other CDMA carriers like Sprint, for example.

Given that Verizon has already proven that it can seamlessly integrate its current EVDO network with LTE, it seems as though little will get in the way of this vast opening of the marketplace. That still leaves one very proprietary frontier in the online world: cellphone handsets themselves.

Google, as I’ve mentioned before, is also combating this “closed” and “proprietary” notion of handset software with its Android platform. Since its announcement this fall, numerous videos are now available on YouTube, and an emulator is now available with the software development kit for the geekiest among us. Apple fans might be skeptical, but I am completely convinced the interface and Google’s past successes with Gmail and Google Maps will vault this mobile platform to a new level. Some über-geeks are already running Android on their Windows Mobile smartphones, much like Mac users can run Windows on newer Macs. Google will offer the software to handset manufacturers for free, and widespread adoption will hopefully lead to a new gamut of creative, practical, constantly-connected mobile applications.

I think I’ve praised Google enough for the time being. Thankfully over the course of the company’s short life — a mere nine years — they haven’t goofed up too badly yet. Still, with a company this powerful in all aspects of the Internet, connectivity and computing, the political and journalistic spheres must keep close watch over Google’s actions. With so much power in so few hands, the stakes are enormous.

Barrett Williams is a sophomore in Trumbull College. His column appears on Wednesdays.