If Google were reduced to a single character in film, it might well be Anakin Skywalker, George Lucas's heroic Jedi Knight who tragically yields to the Force to become the evil Darth Vader.
Among the search company's core principles is the statement: You can make money without doing evil. In line with that assertion, which I heartily agree with, let's note that Google actively does a lot of good things in the world, one of which is unfolding right now.
At the request of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Google has released a special version if its Flu Trends tracker that is intended to help Mexican officials in the fight against the Swine Flu pandemic, as The New York Times has reported.
By evaluating data on searches on the word "flu" by location over time, Google has for over six months now provided users (and the CDC) a useful new tool for tracking outbreaks of the disease. Although the search giant lacks as much historical data about previous outbreaks in Mexico as is available in the U.S., its tracker should prove valuable to Mexican health officials as they attempt to respond to the deepening threat Swine Flu represents to its citizens, its economy, and its political stability.
This is Google as Jedi Knight, a hero we can all support.
But there is another side to Google, as my Bnet colleague Erik Sherman points out today in his post on our Technology industry page. Erik evaluates recent comments by Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who has promised to roll out a new, more targeted advance search feature for users, featuring content from The New York Times and the Washington Post.
While Google figures to collect premier rates for ads displayed next to this content, there appears to be no plan to share this revenue with the two newspapers, one of which (The Times) is in increasingly vulnerable financial condition, as we've noted here recently.
So, this is the Darth Vader part of the company's split personality.
It can be fascinating to witness the company as it struggles to resolve the contradictions that have developed, inevitably, with scale. Like it or not, the senior leaders of the company now have the ability to do great good and great evil. Perhaps nothing illustrates how Google is attempting to balance its need to continue to expand and generate ever-higher returns than the obscure, wonky debate being waged out over its plan to make accessible millions of out-of-print books via its ambitious scanning project with major university and public libraries.
Google stands to emerge from that controversy with something like a monopoly hold over the market for old books, yet on its official blog, the company continues to insist it is simply serving the public interest. Both things could be true, of course, ultimately, as these and many other controversies play out in the courts, in legislative battles, and in evolving user behavior online.
If ever anyone at the top of Google wants to do some soul-searching along the lines suggested here, they may wish to consider that it may in the end turn out to be that the capital-fueled imperitive to always grow, expand, and extend its reach is the Force that undermines the company's heroic efforts in the end. Not that I am suggesting that capitalism is inherently evil; far from it.
Monopolies, however, always are.
(Posted enroute JFK-SFO via gogoinflight.com on American Airlines. I still get a kick out of this stuff.)