Google, the good samaritan?

Internet search company releases tool to track governments’ information requests.

Last week, as our government struggled with legislation meant to hold financial corporations accountable, a big American corporation announced plans to help keep governments accountable.
GoogleâÄôs new âÄúGovernment TrackerâÄù tool may be an unprecedented initiative by a for-profit company, one that pressures governments to be more transparent in their information gathering. With some caveats, it makes public the number of requests Google gets from the world’s governments to release and censor data. For the first half-year of data, the United States trails only Brazil in the numbers; the U.S. government requested data from Google 3,580 times between July and December 2009. In requests for data removal, the U.S. weighs in at a distant fourth, with 123 requests. But the public might ask: Why? WhatâÄôs in it for Google? The companyâÄôs official mission is âÄúto organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.âÄù ItâÄôs up for debate whether this goal is benevolent, sinister, or both; but itâÄôs certain that Google makes a tidy profit from it. If we accept the old adage that knowledge is power, too, then their mission makes Google very powerful indeed. Many large companies, though, from Nike to Bank of America, are trying ostensibly to do a little good in the world âÄî a phenomenon thatâÄôs being called the âÄúnew corporate philanthropy.âÄù According to Google.org, the search companyâÄôs âÄúphilanthropic wing,âÄù they âÄúhave set a goal of devoting 1% of Google’s equity and yearly profits to philanthropy.âÄù Of course, no company is perfect, and that includes Google. Making the worldâÄôs information public is a great principle when applied to governments, but itâÄôs more problematic when applied to copyrighted published works, say, or private citizens. The company has faced numerous lawsuits over its quest to scan the worldâÄôs books, for example, and Google has also been criticized for being complicit in government censorship in China and elsewhere. Most recently, GoogleâÄôs mapping project sparked controversy in Germany when it was revealed their âÄústreetviewâÄù cars were also scanning for home Wi-Fi networks without prior permission. Then there is the matter of compliance with government requests for information or removal âÄî GoogleâÄôs new government tracker omits this data from their service, though they comment, âÄúWe would like to be able to share more informationâĦbut itâÄôs not an easy matter.âÄù Transparency seldom goes all the way, it turns out. Still, as Goldmann Sachs writhes under ongoing public scrutiny and BPâÄôs oil spill burns its way across the Gulf of Mexico, it is heartening to see a company doing something, anything, thatâÄôs not directly beneficial to its bottom line.