Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Things are Still Black and White at Google

Google seems to have joined Fidelity and Berkshire Hathaway in addressing the question of what happens when shareholders discover their social conscience. According to Sumner Lemon of IDG News Service, whose report appeared on the InfoWorld Web site, the annual meeting will include a vote on "a proposal that would require the company to legally resist government censorship efforts and to notify users when the company is required by governments to censor search results." As may be guessed, this proposal originated with shareholders:

The proposal was submitted by New York City's Office of the Comptroller, which helps oversee the New York City Employees’ Retirement System, the New York City Teachers’ Retirement System, the New York City Police Pension Fund, and the New York City Fire Department Pension Fund, and is a custodian of the New York City Board of Education Retirement System.

Combined, these funds hold 486,617 shares of Google stock, a stake worth about $228.2 million.

However, if we are to go by Lemon's report, Eric Schmidt does not share Warren Buffett's taste for open debate:

Censorship has been a sore point for Google. The company -- which uses "don't be evil" as its corporate mantra -- was widely criticized last year for launching a Chinese search engine that censored results. defense of the company's decision to launch the search engine, Chairman and CEO Eric Schmidt said the company had weighed the pros and cons of censorship.

"We concluded that although we weren't wild about the restrictions, it was even worse to not try to serve those users at all," Schmidt said, speaking at the 2006 World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland. "We actually did an evil scale and decided not to serve at all was worse evil."

So, apparently, Google makes their ethical decisions on the basis of an "evil scale," whose computations are about as transparent as those used by the Motion Picture Association of America when it comes to assigning film ratings. This may yet make this week's Chutzpah of the Week award; but the week is still young (not to mention lively). I still subscribe to the principle behind the title of a post I wrote back in March: "If You Reduce it All to a Single Number, that Number is Almost Certainly Wrong!" I have derived more than a little impish pleasure in pointing out what happens when Schmidt's tendency to reduce everything to algorithms bumps into the subtleties of the real world, but it would probably be too much to suggest that Schmidt might consider looking to Buffett as a new role model!

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