Google's not evil, but definitely arrogant

COMMENTARY Last month, France's Commission Nationale de l'Informatique et des Libertes (CNIL) put Google (GOOG) on notice that it was going to investigate how the company shared data across its services.

"Our preliminary analysis shows that Google's new policy does not meet the requirements of the European Directive on data protection," the Commission said. "The CNIL and the EU data protection authorities have strong doubts about the lawfulness and fairness of such processing."

Undeterred, Google's new privacy policy, which is set to go live Friday, will not give users any chance to opt out of having their data merged across all Google services and used to target advertising.

It's a bad moment when corporations decide that they are beyond the law. And, in Europe, it's a bad moment when American corporations take that step. It confirms every European's prejudice that Americans are culturally insensitive, selfish, greedy and don't play well with others.

Of course Google can easily take the position that that doesn't matter: with no meaningful European competition, the company may feel it can afford to turn a blind eye to the environment in which it operates. European governments? Who cares? And anyway, the law is for sissies. Whether or not more subtle discussions are taking place within the corporation about costs and risks, that's how Google's decision plays on the other side of the Atlantic.

This kind of perceived arrogance isn't good for any business. Sure, you can build a business on the back of hating your customers -- several airlines seem manage it -- but the Internet is a big place with lots of choices. Perhaps more important, imagining you are the center of the universe is how Microsoft (MSFT) managed to miss the Internet and mobile phones. It's how, for years, Coke (KO) and Pepsi (PEP) couldn't see the market for bottled water or, more recently, for vitamin drinks. It is also why Google came so late to the social networking party.

Once you believe (and business school professors insist on telling you) that you are the smartest, coolest, most visionary company on earth, you are set to make big, obvious mistakes.

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    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on