Did Google lose its soul on the way to global dom­i­na­tion?

An un­happy 20th birth­day looms for the in­ter­net gi­ant, re­ports Margi Mur­phy in San Fran­cisco

The Sunday Telegraph - Money & Business - - Front page -

It has rev­o­lu­tionised the in­ter­net and changed the way bil­lions live, com­mu­ni­cate and search for in­for­ma­tion. But when Google marks its 20th birth­day this week it will be a strangely muted af­fair. De­spite an $800bn (£612bn) val­u­a­tion and a prod­uct used ev­ery day by more than half the world’s con­nected pop­u­la­tion, the Sil­i­con Val­ley gi­ant finds it­self un­der at­tack from all sides.

Amid soar­ing prof­its, Google has been strug­gling with an in­ter­nal war over em­ployee di­ver­sity. It has with­drawn from a con­tract to build AI for the mil­i­tary af­ter an em­ployee re­volt and is deal­ing with a back­lash over an al­leged plan to move into China, which would mean ac­qui­esc­ing to Bei­jing’s sur­veil­lance re­quests.

A com­pany which qui­etly shelved its “don’t be evil” motto ear­lier this year now owns a video site, Youtube, which has been ac­cused of har­bour­ing and en­cour­ag­ing ter­ror­ism, vi­o­lence and cy­ber-bul­ly­ing while Don­ald Trump has launched an at­tack on the tech gi­ant, threat­en­ing reper­cus­sions for claimed anti-repub­li­can bias.

Has Google – the ar­che­typal Cal­i­for­nia tech com­pany founded in the Day-glo, hippy spirit of the early World Wide Web – lost its way?

So far, the two nerds who founded it – Larry Page and Sergey Brin – have had lit­tle to say on the mat­ter. Page re­fused to turn up to Wash­ing­ton af­ter he was called to tes­tify in front of US sen­a­tors about the role it played in al­low­ing Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence ahead of the 2016 elec­tion.

For a com­pany that has taken pride in a so­cially re­spon­si­ble and demo­cratic ethos, it seemed an odd strat­egy. But for Pro­fes­sor Terry Wino­grad, the for­mer head of Stan­ford Univer­sity’s com­puter sci­ence de­part­ment who taught Page, then an in­tro­verted but ra­zor-sharp stu­dent – and en­cour­aged him to crack on with a scheme to in­dex the in­ter­net – the no-show was no sur­prise.

He says: “Sil­i­con Val­ley, as a whole, be­lieves power lies in tech­nol­ogy and if you say ‘what about those peo­ple who get elected’ they say ‘they are a bunch of hacks in Wash­ing­ton, they don’t have any real power’.”

And Google, which in 2015 re­struc­tured into a con­glom­er­ate for­mat called Al­pha­bet, with Page as chief ex­ec­u­tive and Brin as pres­i­dent, has al­ways been a far more nu­anced or­gan­i­sa­tion than it ap­pears.

Its home cam­pus, which Pro­fes­sor Wino­grad de­scribes as like Dis­ney­land, fits the stereo­type. Wan­der­ing around the Moun­tain View cam­pus can take in six-foot-high lime green An­droid stat­ues and em­ploy­ees wear­ing red, blue, yel­low and green striped pro­pel­ler hats on their ori­en­ta­tion day.

But Google’s head­quar­ters is un­der­pinned by se­cure premises and a wa­ter­tight con­fi­den­tial­ity clause for all em­ploy­ees. Sev­eral traitors have been kicked out for dis­cussing projects.

Th­ese days, Google is only one part of the Al­pha­bet um­brella and is left to for­mer Chrome boss Sun­dar Pichai, a safe pair of hands, to run. Its jour­ney to­wards this more cor­po­rate struc­ture is a long way from the group’s ori­gins.

It be­gan in 1995, when Page and Brin met as stu­dents at Stan­ford. Wino­grad, who was granted shares in the com­pany, re­mem­bers those days very well. He never sin­gled out Page as some­one who would be­come one of the most pow­er­ful men in the world. “You could tell he was both very smart and very cre­ative – maybe that is what set him apart,” he says.

But Page was “more open to think­ing about far-out ideas”. “He would be think­ing about how to use his fa­mous moon shot or a space tether, or if we could use an el­e­va­tor to go to space in­stead of ships.” Years later, Google’s se­cre­tive ex­per­i­men­tal divi­sion, X, did start work on the con­cept, but put it on hold af­ter fail­ing to find a strong enough ma­te­rial.

Wino­grad, who taught plenty of fu­ture mil­lion­aires in­clud­ing In­sta­gram co-founder Mike Krieger, is cer­tain that Page and Brin “hap­pened to be in the right place at the right time”. “When we started the re­search project the in­ter­net was purely aca­demic. If you said you could make money ad­ver­tis­ing shoes, you would have been laughed out of the de­part­ment,” he re­calls.

Wino­grad went on to work in Google in its early days on the de­sign team of Marissa Mayer, who went on to run Ya­hoo and helped re­fine what is now known as Gmail. By then, Page and Brin had moved from the garage in which Google was founded and de­posited its first in­vestor cheque.

They would later in­vite four in­terns to join in on their search-en­gine project, in­clud­ing Jen Fitz­patrick, who helped cre­ate Google Maps. She re­calls throw­ing cau­tion to the wind to work for free. “It was this crazy lit­tle start-up”. But soon, Cal­i­for­ni­ans were hear­ing about the power – and wealth – Google was amass­ing.

The early buzz piqued the in­ter­est

‘If you said you could make money ad­ver­tis­ing shoes, you would have been laughed out of the de­part­ment’

Google co-founders Larry Page, left, and Sergey Brin at their com­pany’s head­quar­ters in Moun­tain View, Cal­i­for­nia, in 2004. De­spite its car­ing and fun-lov­ing im­age, in­clud­ing a range of perks for staff, top right, it has ques­tions to an­swer

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