Today is the 20th birthday of Alphabet’s (NASDAQ:GOOGL) Google. In that 20 years it has gone from a startup to a company worth $832 billion as trading opened on Sept. 27. Over the last year Google stock has gained 26% and since going public in 2004 it’s up more than 10-fold.
It has also gone from a company with the mantra “don’t be evil” into a giant which many journalists and politicians consider the personification of evil.
This was on display recently in Washington, where the company was raked over the coals for its plans to possibly get back into China.
These centered on the idea that Google is building a “censored” search engine, in line with the demands of China’s government. No one mentioned that, if you’re accusing Google of bowing to censorship, that ship sailed a long time ago.
Search Censorship and Google Stock
The specific date was May 13, 2014, when the European Court of Justice ruled that search engines must be censored under its concept of “the right to be forgotten.”
The idea was that if a criminal had paid his debt to society, if the record were expunged, they shouldn’t be hounded by employers and others easily finding records of the crime.
This doesn’t mean erasing web pages. It means only erasing the “meta-data,” the data about the page which Google (and other search engines) use to index them. Erase the meta-data, and the page is no longer easily found.
Right now, only local sites are subject to meta-data takedowns. But two courts, one in Europe and one in Canada, are trying to assert such censorship over the global index.
It could mean that if a corporation gets its reputation erased in some local court in the future it will be erased everywhere. There is a large industry of “reputation” firms aiming to do just that.
Google and China
Google has been trying to get into China since the century began and China has been resisting, putting its “Great Firewall” to work against the U.S. site (as well as most other U.S. sites), demanding it control what its citizens seek and can find.
After years of protest, and a decade of being locked out, there are some in Google who are trying to create something that complies with China’s law under the name “Project Dragonfly.” Even some ex-Googlers are angry.
The controversy fits conveniently into a political narrative that Google, along with Facebook (NASDAQ:FB), already censors conservative speech. Until the China issue came up, this is what Google CEO Sundar Pichai was supposedly going to Washington to discuss.
Search and speech are different issues, or at least they’re supposed to be. But they’re not. If a Uigyar, or American immigrant, protest falls in the wood and Google doesn’t hear it, then it makes no sound.
The Bottom Line on Google Stock
Google has revenue of $110 billion last year, and likely over $120 billion this year, over $100 billion in the bank despite a tax law aimed at repatriation, and a network of 15 cloud data centers around the world, many fed by Google-owned fiber cables.
Along with its enormous economic power, comes political power. Google had the biggest lobbying budget in Washington during 2017, and it’s likely even bigger this year.
Not only is Google’s search model under attack, but so is its business model, which really should make people who own Google stock take notice.
Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation, demanding it get personal permission before tracking online usage, has been followed by a copyright law that would require Google (and everyone else) to pay for hyperlinks like this one, paying publishers for giving them traffic.
None of these risks are currently in the stock.
Dana Blankenhorn is a financial and technology journalist. He is the author of a new mystery thriller, The Reluctant Detective Finds Her Family, available now at the Amazon Kindle store. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @danablankenhorn. As of this writing he owned no shares in companies mentioned in this article.