Af­ter 15 years of mar­riage to Google, is it still as good for us as it is for them?

The Irish Times - Business - - CAVEAT - Mark Paul

Fif­teen years of mar­riage is a crys­tal wed­ding an­niver­sary. Hope­fully some­one at Govern­ment build­ings this week re­mem­bered to send an ap­pro­pri­ate present down to the Dublin head­quar­ters of Google, signed with love from Leo and Paschal xxx.

Google cel­e­brated its 15th an­niver­sary in Ire­land on Mon­day. Ever since it first sashayed into Dublin in 2003, ef­fort­lessly cos­mopoli­tan and drip­ping Cal­i­for­nian chic, the State has ap­peared smit­ten. The tech gi­ant and our Repub­lic are now – for all prac­ti­cal pur­poses – mar­ried, joined at the hip and in­creas­ingly re­liant on each other for sup­port in times of trou­ble.

Just look at how the Govern­ment this week helped to stran­gle a pro­posed Euro­pean Union dig­i­tal sales tax that would have cost Google hun­dreds of mil­lions of euro. Ire­land dug in, much to the cha­grin of larger and strop­pier na­tions such as France, even as we rely on them for sup­port to steer us safely through the mael­strom of the Brexit back­stop ne­go­ti­a­tions. That’s true love.

But af­ter 15 years, what sort of a mar­riage has this be­come? It is hardly one of equals, as this is a sov­er­eign state with the power to make its own laws and Google is merely a com­pany, which must fol­low them.

Yet the $765 bil­lion mar­ket cap of Al­pha­bet (Google’s hold­ing com­pany) is more than twice the value of the Ir­ish econ­omy, as mea­sured by GDP. So per­haps it isn’t at all clear which of us in this union is more equal than the other.

If we’re go­ing to be ab­so­lutely hon­est about it, the mar­riage with Google is prob­a­bly more one of con­ve­nience. Yes, there may well be gen­uine af­fec­tion there on both sides. You can’t fake that sort of thing, un­less you’re re­ally good. But the re­la­tion­ship is, at its core, trans­ac­tional.

Ire­land gets 8,000 jobs and count­ing, a jolt­ing in­jec­tion of Euro­pean mil­len­ni­als, more than €1 bil­lion of cap­i­tal ex­pen­di­ture, and the glossi­est of call­ing cards as the State trav­els the world sell­ing it­self to in­vestors as the Sil­i­con Val­ley of Europe.

Google, mean­while, gets in re­turn un­fet­tered ac­cess to the cor­ri­dors of State power to fur­ther its in­ter­ests. It gets a lovely river­side home near the heart of the city, a nice num­ber on tax (com­pared to for­eign al­ter­na­tives), and a mas­sive fi­nan­cial re­turn on its in­vest­ment.

It also gets a friend – a sov­er­eign state, no less – that is pre­pared to go to war for it in the cru­cibles of Brus­sels and the Euro­pean cap­i­tals be­yond, no mat­ter the rep­u­ta­tional cost. If you are a mas­sive cor­po­ra­tion yet al­most uniquely vul­ner­a­ble to reg­u­la­tion, you re­ally can’t buy that sort of love and com­mit­ment. Or, rather, in this in­stance, is it the whole point that you can?

Look­ing back at Google’s en­try into Ire­land in 2003, there is al­most an in­no­cence to the news re­ports of the time. One re­port help­fully ex­plained that Google, which pitched ashore with 200 jobs – a for­tune back in those days – “helps users find sites by typ­ing in key­words”. Bless. The naivety of it.

Sheer ruth­less­ness

But who back then could have known that Google, through as­tound­ing in­no­va­tion and sheer ruth­less­ness, would morph into an om­nipres­ence that knows ev­ery­thing about ev­ery­one and ev­ery sub­ject? A com­pany that knows our ev­ery move through Maps, what our homes look like via Streetview, our ev­ery thought as ex­pressed through word searches. Even our favourite songs and videos via YouTube.

Ire­land had no idea of the awe­some power for which it glee­fully threw back the du­vet all those years ago. Not that it would have stopped us. For 8,000 jobs, we’ll even en­joy it. Af­ter the pil­lar banks – AIB and Bank of Ire­land – and the gro­cers Dunnes Stores, Mus­grave and Tesco, Google is by far the largest pri­vate sec­tor em­ployer in the State, when you count all staff con­tracted to it.

Fif­teen years on, Google is now so deeply em­bed­ded in this so­ci­ety that it is hard to see how it could ever leave with­out a messy, drawn-out di­vorce. It isn’t just the 8,000 staff and the col­lec­tion of prime Dublin prop­er­ties. Google is buried core deep in our so­ci­ety. It’ll have to be dug out.

Pays for ac­cess projects

Google pro­vides fund­ing to Ir­ish schools, through cod­ing pro­grammes, and uni­ver­si­ties, such as Trin­ity Col­lege, where it pays for ac­cess projects and sci­ence ini­tia­tives. It pro­vides project fund­ing to me­dia or­gan­i­sa­tions, in­clud­ing

The Ir­ish Times, the Jour­nal, and State-owned RTÉ.

Google pro­vides seed fund­ing for Ir­ish com­pa­nies. It puts up cash to en­cour­age in­vestors to Adopt a Start Up, in con­junc­tion with En­ter­prise Ire­land. This week, it even put up €1 mil­lion for not-for-profit Dublin groups to pro­vide “so­cial op­por­tu­ni­ties in their lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties”.

In Ire­land, Google is ev­ery­where. This is why it gets such easy ac­cess to min­is­ters and other elected politi­cians. It’s all there in the pub­lic lob­by­ing reg­is­ter for any­one to check. They may as well put in a mono­rail from Grand Canal Dock to Le­in­ster House: there’d be no short­age of traf­fic for it.

The reg­is­ter out­lines dozens upon dozens of Google meet­ings with the most se­nior politi­cians in the State. They dis­cuss is­sues as di­verse as tax, a steep hill upon which Ire­land has shown it­self pre­pared to die in Europe; the Dig­i­tal Sin­gle Mar­ket, which Ire­land is at the fore­front of push­ing in Europe; data pri­vacy rules, about which Ire­land also has plenty to say; and even ed­u­ca­tion pol­icy.

But make no mis­take: this mar­riage, con­ve­nient as it is, has been ev­ery bit as good for Google as it has been for the Repub­lic. It has made an ab­so­lute for­tune out of Ire­land. Both par­ties should never lose sight of that fact.

There should never be any need for bow­ing and scrap­ing from the Ir­ish side.

Google is now so deeply em­bed­ded in this so­ci­ety that it is hard to see how it could ever leave with­out a messy, drawn-out di­vorce. Google is buried core deep in our so­ci­ety

PHO­TO­GRAPH: IS­TOCK

On re­flec­tion this mar­riage, con­ve­nient as it is, has been ev­ery bit as good for Google as it has been for the Repub­lic. Pic­tured is Google’s head­quar­ters in Dublin.

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