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
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 It has withdrawn from a contract to build AI for the military after an employee revolt and is dealing with a backlash over an alleged plan to move into China, which would mean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