On Google’s good gamble

By Justin Doran

Google is one of the few multibillion-dollar corporations that has a healthy relationship with its public image. Sure, other companies have been able to latch themselves onto sacred cultural icons, like the American auto industry carefully painting themselves as advocates for their blue-collar workers. And some have made headway by pumping substantial capital into public relations campaigns, like Coca-Cola’s popular, “Don’t worry about the depletion of your local water tables, you can just drink Coke instead.” But Google spends nary a dime on manipulating our opinions, and the consensus remains overwhelmingly positive.

How could this happen? I mean, Americans are highly suspicious of big businesses, yet one of the biggest businesses in the world is getting a free ride. Why? The answer seems almost too obvious: Google actually does good things. For instance, at the beginning of February Google executives bid on a portion of the wireless spectrum that the Federal Communications Commission was auctioning off. In case you didn’t know, there are large swaths of energy buzzing through our heads that companies are not allowed to transmit data through. However, as the demand for access to these spectra increases, the government will occasionally license them for use. Now, if you were to object that Google doesn’t operate any sort of wireless business, you’d be correct. The actual reason they put about $4.6 billion on the line was because they were acting in collusion with the government to guarantee a certain minimum for the auction.

What did Google get in return? Nothing. Well, almost nothing. As a result of Google gambling this massive amount of money, the FCC agreed to enforce certain standards of openness on whoever actually purchased the license, which turned out to be Verizon Wireless. These standards will now prevent Verizon from signing exclusive agreements with cell phone manufacturers and software vendors. If you ever wondered why your cell service restricts you to a phone made out of tinsel that runs Windows 95, it’s because of exclusive agreements. They’re ubiquitous in the U.S. market.

To be fair, Google will derive some benefit from this situation. One of their new product lines is a kind of cell phone software called Android. Now that at least one cellular service provider is legally required to provide open access to Android, Google will not have to pay horrendous amounts of money to buy into one of those juicy exclusive agreements. The problem with concluding that this was therefore entirely selfish is that Android is itself free. It seems to me, therefore, that when Google says they were doing it to achieve “greater wireless choice and innovation,” they were telling the truth.

Corporate apologists have responded to this strategy of honest concern for the public good by claiming that it’s only a matter of time. One of these days Google is going to stumble across the fact that when you stab someone in the back, money pours out of the wounds. And after their fiscal honeymoon is over, Google will come to its senses and accept capitalism as the cold, blind whore that she is. Of course, this might be a little pessimistic. But even less hyperbolic commentators will say that “don’t be evil” works right now only because they’re successful. When hard times come, they will have to fall back on old-school corporate culture or face extinction. And that’s when the pro-Google propaganda will start popping up on YouTube.

To this I must sincerely disagree. However, in the interest of full disclosure, I should reveal that I’m a partisan on this issue. That is, I count myself firmly in the “good” camp. I wouldn’t stiff my roommate on the power bill or cheat on my taxes or barbecue the stray kittens living near my apartment. No, I just don’t see the appeal to being evil.

Corporations, on the other hand, operate under the assumption that short-term gains accumulate to long-term profit and indefinite financial survival. Unfortunately, short-term gain is highly correlated to being a total schmuck. Google’s strategy will continue to work for the same reason that morality in general continues to work. It changes the whole project of existence from caring about yourself to caring about your community. Perhaps I am speaking from the jejune optimism of our generation, but should corporate ethics not be an outgrowth of interpersonal morality? Just consider that when you find yourself, some years hence, at the helm of our capitalist machine.

Justin is a senior in religious studies. http://jmdoran.info/{first semiprime keith number}.html