Is Google selling out to the GOP?

… or is the GOP just buying stuff from Google and bragging about it?

Marc Canter wondered the former with Is Google being played like a violin, which he wrote after reading this press release from GOPConvention2008.com. From the release:

  As Official Innovation Provider, Google Inc. will enhance the GOP’s online presence with new applications, search tools, and interactive video. In addition, Google will help generate buzz and excitement in advance of the convention through its proven online marketing techniques.

  and…

  “As more Americans go online to learn about elections, we’re pleased to work with the Republican National Convention to give citizens around the world easy access to convention information and new ways to engage in the event,” said David Drummond, Google’s Senior Vice President of Corporate Development and Chief Legal Officer.

  “This year, YouTube will bring a new dimension to this landmark event by enabling GOP visitors to share their unique experiences with the world through the power of online video,” said Chad Hurley, YouTube co-founder. “We look forward to working with the convention committee and watching the action unfold.”

This would be pure PR jive and nothing more if the release were restricted to the first paragraph. But when two high-level Google Execs, including its Chief Legal Officer, provide sales blurbs to just one side (so far) of a partisan political battlefield, expect Serious Questions to follow.

To help answer those questions, some context.

First, Nick Carr’s new book, The Big Switch, makes clear at least one strong trend in computing that is being led by Google (along with Amazon, Yahoo and others): Cheap, utility-supplied computing will ultimately change society as profoundly as cheap electricity did. No, personal computing won’t go away, but much of what we need, from storage to applications and raw compute power, will be available (and increasingly relied upon) as utility services. As utilities, these are going to be as free from prejudice about usage as are electricity, gas, water and waste treatment. (That is, not totally free, but sensibly so.) Looking at what the GOP says it will do with Google utilities, I’d say that’s the case here.

Second, it’s important to study how utility providers such as Google engage with large customers (and whole countries) that some find objectionable. For a view on that, check out the recent talk by the dissident Chinese journalist Michael Anti at the Berkman Center. Ethan Zuckerman has a long and helpful write-up. So does David Weinberger. From the latter:

  Q: (colin) Anything that international companies can do?

  A: If Congress banned Google from doing business with China, what would happen to gmail? If Microsoft left China, what about Messenger? For Congress, it’s easy to be black and white. But the Chinese people depend on these tools to communicate about freedom and rights. The real cost is Chinese freedom. (Yahoo is different. It’s “a real bad thing.” It “didn’t do any good to China.”) The Chinese authorities want to embrace the Internet, to be part of the international community, not like North Korea. So we should encourage them to do more with the Internet and to continue to say that the Internet is good. The outside world should encourage as well as blame the Chinese government. The Chinese people don’t like blame and don”t like being told what to do.

Somewhere in there (not sure it got on the podcast) Michael said that Google had great leverage through a single simple fact: most people working for the Chinese government use Gmail. Leverage isn’t always something that is actively used. In fact, in many (perhaps most) cases it doesn’t need to be brought up at all. It’s simply a fact that must be recognized.

Whether one likes or dislikes Google’s engagement with China, or the GOP, at least it’s engaged. For some things it may be in a better position to make a positive difference than if it were not engaged.

As for Yahoo, Michael said that the company had completely lost face in China. Never mind that, as this TechCrunch post puts it, Yahoo owns only 40% of Yahoo China. And that Yahoo may have “been made a scapegoat for the flaws of US foreign policy”. The fact remains that Yahoo, according to the International Herald Tribune, “provided information that helped Chinese state security officials convict a Chinese journalist for leaking state secrets to a foreign Web site…”

There is no doubt that Google has been far more successful than Yahoo in dealing with China. Is it just because Google has a “don’t be evil” imperative and Yahoo does not? I don’t think so. Rather I think that Google has been smart and resourceful in ways that Yahoo has not. Specifically, Google has stayed true to its roots as a tech company with specific and easily understood guiding principles. Yahoo had those too, and for longer than Google. But Yahoo broke faith with those principles, and lost its integrity, when it decided to become an entertainment company and hired Terry Semel as its CEO. In doing so Yahoo ceased being a flagpole and instead became a flag — one that soon will be flying from somebody else’s pole.

5 comments

  1. carterfsmith’s avatar

    I think that Google has more of a global vision, with a heavy dose of systems thinking. The Google leadership reminds me a bit of Wal-Mart before father Sam’s dynasty became history, compared to K-Mart, which has yet to shed the blue-light special imagery. Google realizes that the Chinese (and the GOP) want something from them, and they are willing to deliver it (as they will for the rest of us) for the insurance factor, bragging rights and exposure that these relationships bring. It would be pretty tough for either of these big names to later turn on their ‘preferred provider’ with such an open and linked relationship.

    Meanwhile Yahoo! is content with the old-school corporate ‘we’ve always done it this way’ mindset. Gee, I wonder why they seem to be such a good fit for Microsoft?

    Speaking of that potential merger . . . does it remind you a little of Time-Warner/AOL?

  2. Don Marti’s avatar

    The main problem is that Yahoo has been less careful or more obsequious about whose jurisdiction it’s willing to put a server in. So there’s Yahoo customer information where it’s easier for the PRC police to get at, but Google — at least so far, as far as I know — is not willing to put someone’s personal data on PRC soil. (please someone correct me if I’m wrong or out of date on this.)

    One more thing — if the enemy-of-my-enemy rule holds, and the big copyright holders (and their stooges, including Bruce Lehman himself) back Hillary Clinton, and the big copyright holders are in a legal beef with Google over book scanning, then that leaves Google allied with the anti-Hillary.

    Why Republicans Should Love Larry Lessig. Does this make sense yet?

  3. Google accused of collaborating with … Republicans ?!? « Short Nerd Chief’s avatar

    [...] also gets McCain’s actual record almost 100% wrong, but that’s another story).  Doc Searls compares the Republicans to the Chinese government, implying that selling services to the GOP is doing evil.  What the hell?  Disagree with [...]

  4. Edward Murrow’s avatar

    Why shouldn’t they … take a page from Microsoft.

  5. Jack Vinson’s avatar

    For purely entertainment value, I offer this observation from the roads around Providence, RI last week.

    I was driving with my wife and a colleague and noticed an SUV with a large Ron Paul for President sign in the back window. (“President of what?” was my wife’s response several months ago.) On looking at the SUV further, the sign also included “Google” on the top row.

    We couldn’t figure out if this was a command to Google Ron Paul, or if it was an indication that Google were sponsoring Ron Paul’s candidacy.

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