Google is sitting on top of a global volcano of resentment that is now starting to erupt. The sentencing of three of its executives in Italy over a video posted on YouTube that showed an autistic teenager being bullied and the furore over Google's use of privileged data to launch the social networking site Buzz, soon to be available in Arabic, are only the early rumblings.
In its American home, where the company is estimated to have a 65 per cent share of the internet search market, Google is facing harsh criticism for what is considered a cavalier attitude to users' personal data. Google's recent co-operation agreement with the US National Security Agency is aimed at helping it cope with hacking attacks such as those it recently experienced from China. But fears that Google may one day decide to open its entire database to government agencies have been fanned by a recent request from Robert Mueller, the director of the FBI, that the providers of internet services be prepared to open their entire databanks up to federal investigators at the first request, without a court order, and that all data be retained for at least two years.
"Google is a honey pot of information," says Rebecca Jeschke, the spokeswoman for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an internet privacy pressure group based in San Francisco. "As well as its search records, there is Google Earth, Google Maps, Gmail, Google Docs and Google Calendar. There is a great deal of personal information stored by Google, and we do not believe that the authorities should be entitled to access it without a warrant."
Privacy fears were further fuelled by a recent statement by Eric Schmidt, the chief executive of Google: "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place. "But if you really need that kind of privacy, the reality is that search engines including Google do retain this information for some time, and it's important, for example, that we are all subject in the US to the Patriot Act. It is possible that that information could be made available to the authorities."
These words seem to echo those of Mr Schmidt's old boss and mentor Scott McNealy, the former chief executive and co-founder of the IT giant Sun Microsystems, who once famously remarked: "You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it." But Mr McNealy was a legendary Silicon Valley eccentric who named all his four sons after Ford cars and who frequently took great delight in saying things calculated to shock others in the industry. Civil rights groups see Mr Schmidt's statement as far more chilling.
"There are plenty of things such as your tax or medical records that are perfectly innocent, but that you want to keep private," says Ms Jeschke. "Google's corporate credo is 'Don't be evil'. What it needs to understand is that it doesn't have to be evil for evil things to be done by others who get their hands on the data it holds." But in Europe, where Google has a 90 per cent share of the search market in some countries, the debate has less to do with privacy and more with protecting local business interests against Google's dominance of the internet search market.
For example, local sources believe the Italian court that convicted three Google executives of invasion of privacy was really responding to pressure from a government whose president is also a media mogul. "The judgment of the courts could be part of a plot to establish control of the internet," says Paolo Bruni, a spokesman for the Italian pressure group Scambio Etico, a grass-roots movement championing online freedom.
"The TV stations are controlled by Italian president Silvio Berlusconi through his company Mediaset, as are newspapers. The internet is the only media where Mediaset is weak, losing between one and seven million former TV viewers to the internet each night. "Berlusconi sees the internet as competitor for viewers and may wish to slow Google down until Mediaset can establish a dominant market share."
Google is also experiencing commercial and political resistance elsewhere in Europe. In Germany, newspaper and magazine publishers earn only about ?100 million (Dh498.3m) a year from online advertising, with Google's German ad revenues running at about ?1.2 billion per year. To defend itself, the German publishing industry has lobbied the government of Angela Merkel, the chancellor, to support a new kind of copyright protection that could force search companies such as Google to pay for special licences to display other companies' content.
Germany's minister of justice, Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, recently accused Google of "megalomania". "I see a giant monopoly developing, largely unnoticed, similar to Microsoft," Ms Leutheusser-Schnarrenbergershe told the magazine Der Spiegel. In Britain, Google is also taking political flak for being seen as taking from the country without putting enough back in. Despite having a 90 per cent share of the online search market and making billions of dollars from online advertising, Google manages to avoid paying corporation tax in the UK. By locating offshore, the company avoids paying up to £450m (Dh2.47bn) a year.
Vince Cable, the deputy leader of the UK Liberal Democrats, recently said: "Avoidance like this is hard to stomach at the best of times. But when the country is in recession and everyone is feeling the pain, it really sticks in the throat. It means higher taxes for the rest of us." So widespread is resentment of what many perceive to be Google's blitzkrieg business strategy that the European Commission in Brussels is now preparing to take up cudgels against the internet giant.
The commission is examining allegations by rival internet services that Google undermines them by artificially demoting their sites in its search rankings. The three companies making the allegations are the UK price comparison site Foundem, the French legal search engine ejustice.fr and Microsoft's price comparison site Ciao. The debate over whether Google truly represents a threat to personal freedom and national identity, and whether governments should seek to limit its growth, is now set to spread to the Middle East, which had the highest internet growth last year making Google more anxious than ever to extend its Arabic offering.
Google is understood to be particularly interested in the UAE, as it has the highest advertising spending in the region. firstname.lastname@example.org