Google must search its soul

Google sees nothing wrong in adding links to sites without permission. It should try harder to grow a conscience.

True drama comes when saintliness and sin battle it out in one place. The bigger the setting, the more exciting the drama - and on that basis, Google is one of the most dramatic organisations on the planet. Last week, Google offered to host some or all of Wikipedia, the open encyclopaedia and poster child for the new democracy of knowledge. Previously, the search giant had said it was funding massive undertakings to get university libraries online and accessible to all.

These are the acts of a company committed to the most idealistic dreams of the Net. But what to make of the decision to take over existing web content and offer alternative links, which may run entirely counter to the wishes of site designers? When Microsoft tried this, the stings of criticism were enough to send even that pachyderm packing -- it looks as if Google's evidence of goodness elsewhere won't save it from a similar fate.

It's best not to get too exercised by this slip. A technical solution suggests itself. Google already obeys the Robots Exclusion Protocol, which lets site maintainers specify which parts of their content should not be visited by search engines. It would be simple to extend this to include link generation systems, so that both hosts and clients can decide whether or not to take Google up on its kind offer.

The most worrying aspect is that Google doesn't seem to have suggested this itself. It's true that such a protocol might limit the take-up of the toolbar feature, but not every innovation deserves to flourish.

Whatever consultation process goes on inside the Googleplex, it's not hooked into public opinion well enough. Saintliness wins over sin only if one's conscience is in good working order. If Google wants to keep its reputation, it must learn to search more than just words.

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