Mr Google Goes To Washington

At the behest of Microsoft and others, the American trade regulator the FTC has started investigating whether Google is abusing its position as the leading search engine to promote its own services above the competition. The question is: how evil is Google being?

At the behest of Microsoft and others, the American trade regulator the FTC has started investigating whether Google is abusing its position as the leading search engine to promote its own services above the competition. The question is: how evil is Google being?

And so, Eric Schmidt will stand up in front of an investigating committee in Washington on Wednesday and give his official response. While the details are to come, the safe bet is he'll reiterate Google's commitment to the side of the angels. In that, he'll be underlining not just what the Google executive team say in public or what the marketing spin of the day is, but what Google employees actually think. It is hard to do evil by accident, so why is there a case to answer?

Google is intensely entrepreneurial by nature. It has a very strong adherence to the Silicon Valley truisms of failing fast and failing often, doing whatever it takes to get an idea out of the door, and not letting process get in the way of product. It does not have a strong tradition of internal discipline outside of engineering: even small groups of engineers have autonomy more akin to start-ups than employees of a multi-billion dollar international corporation.

Behaving well as a monopoly comes hard in such a culture. An engineer besotted with an idea will naturally want to give it the best chance possible, and will assume that the inherent goodness in their vision overrides any consideration of using Google's immense power to give that idea a leg-up in the market. Or, as most likely happened with the Wi-Fi data gathering scandal, the assumption will be that sloppy code management doesn't matter: after all, the errant data can just be thrown away, as it has no engineering use. That is not the opinion of regulators.

The least harmful outcome of an anti-trust investigation is that Google's competitors are handed lots of ammunition with which to attack the company. The most is that Google will be found to have behaved so badly that it will be forced to make changes in its way of working, be restricted in the markets it can operate in, or be required to make the innermost details of its algorithms and search ranking system public. That would make its search engine much easier to game, and would pollute the quality of its results; something that may serve its competitors but is unlikely to improve the public experience of the internet.

However, if Google can demonstrate an awareness that aspects of its culture are not helpful to a company with so much power it could do Mountain View a lot of good. That will be hard. It will be still harder to adapt to a more disciplined, more accountable approach to its responsibilities as an alpha gorilla in the digital jungle without quenching some of its innovatory fervour.

If it manages this, though, it will be a much better organisation as a result — stronger, more able to understand its larger environment and a much harder opponent to out-manoeuvre in the market. And Eric Schmidt will be able to stand up in front of congressmen, consumers and competitors alike with a clear conscience and a clearer message. This may not be the outcome the competitors desire: for the rest of us, it would be a rare example of anti-trust regulation having a wholly positive result.