by James Temple
April 3, 2011
It would take a prolonged investigation and trial to determine whether Google has actually abused market dominance under antitrust laws. But the conclusions of the FTC and the judge in the Google Books case suggest the company is at least testing the boundaries of privacy and copyright rules. In other words, there's a perception problem, because there's a reality problem.
Trying to rewrite law
Google Books was reportedly Page's brainchild. It's the perfect example of everything that people find both wonderful and worrisome about Google. Few can dispute the immense social good promised by such an ambitious project: essentially making the corpus of world knowledge instantly searchable by anyone.
But Google was tripped up chiefly through its execution, by storming ahead and copying the professional labors of others, without their permission. Its proposed legal settlement was even more audacious: seeking to essentially rewrite how copyright law works through an agreement between private parties, while granting itself a "de facto monopoly" over digitized works for which an author can't be located, Judge Denny Chin wrote in his opinion.
The settlement "would give Google a significant advantage over competitors, rewarding it for engaging in wholesale copying of copyrighted works without permission," he said.
The message floating out to select publications is that Page wants to return the company to its entrepreneurial roots; to kick-start its innovation engine. That's a good thing, of course. But Page and Google may need to recognize that different rules and different lenses apply for a startup in a Menlo Park garage and an almost $190 billion company that dominates the search market.
Increasingly, Google might have to seek consensus and partnerships to achieve its goals, rather than simply unleashing disruptive technologies on the world.
That may mean Page will have to learn to empathize with, rather than dismiss out of hand, those who don't see the world the way he and Google do. And it could mean sometimes - and maybe even a lot of the time - he'll have to plead his case in the court of public opinion, or else the other kind.
Need for turnaround
Some believe this is all well within Page's capabilities, if he chooses to work at it.
"I've seen a lot of CEOs exhibit complete turnarounds," said Charlene Li, founder of the Altimeter Group, specifically mentioning Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg.
Others are dubious, including Siva Vaidhyanathan, author of the just released "The Googlization of Everything."
"I think that with Larry Page taking over Google, it's going to be more arrogance and more idealism, at the very moment when he should be humble and realistic, in order to get through these very real regulatory pressures," he said.
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