Tech Talk: Have Google's Controversies Been Avoidable?

Google's issues over the past year seem to be indicative of a larger tech industry problem that is extremely complex and both politically and culturally divisive. Many would likely chalk the majority of controversies up to the company's leadership, CEO Sundar Pichai. However, it may be fair to say that nearly all of the issues in question would still be there regardless of who is in charge at any of the big technology organizations. Bearing that in mind, Google, in particular, has seen a resounding backlash from across the board a number of times throughout in late 2016 and throughout 2017. The company has been a sort of microcosm for ethical, cultural, and legal issues across the industry and Pichai's approach to solutions has been both lauded and criticized, as well as being entirely different from that of the previous leadership. Whether or not it is the right approach for tech giants to take remains to be seen but there is a solid argument to be made that the controversies have primarily been no-win situations. So it may be that Pichai's approach is necessary for the current socio-political environment.

To begin with, it needs to be said that Google and many other companies are steadily broaching new ground from a number of standpoints. Artificial intelligence (A.I.) has begun to take the world by storm and that comes with its own philosophical hot-button issues about privacy and what it means for an A.I. to be more helpful than harmful. More generally, technology has become so ingrained in daily life for a substantial portion of the world's population that there more opportunities present than ever before for its misuse. People are wary of changes or new innovations, as well as suspicious about the motivations of large organizations data collections and use. Moreover, everybody appears to, have different expectations for new innovations and with regard to the role technology companies should play in society. That's understandable, but it is a problem for which there is, realistically, no easy solution if there is a solution at all. It's also where Pichai's ideas about leadership, problem-solving, dialogue, and A.I.-based solutions enter the equation.

Underlying the complexity of the issues at hand is Google's own A.I. The company has been working to create an intelligence that is both useful and meaningful, as one of Pichai's primary focuses since he took over leading the search giant. Despite the many advances in digital assistant technologies and other forward-thinking implementations, however, the tech itself has proven to be difficult. It has also sparked some of its own problems. Most recently, the systems Google uses to deliver its advertising over YouTube videos have been called into question, after the companies content moderating A.I. failed to flag what many would view to be extremist media. Adding to the problem, the content of the videos themselves was already at issue in the media and for technology-related companies. The resulting backlash from the companies being advertised was ultimately short-lived and had little impact on the company's earning power but it could easily have been much worse. In fact, when Pichai highlighted the difficulties by pointing to a more socially acceptable, violence-filled music video, many companies also expressed problems with having their advertisements played on those either.

The problem, it seems, is that as complex as it is for a computer to be programmed to recognize the difference between vitriolic hate and entertainment, humans have an equally hard time and tend to disagree about what is really acceptable. That also extends further when discussing Google's approach to fake or misleading news stories. On that front, the controversy stems from multiple areas. First, the question has been raised as to who should really be responsible for judging whether the news is fake or not. For some articles, the process is fairly straightforward, especially if they contain factually incorrect and easily disproved information. However, for those where the facts are less easy to discern, a backlash is bound to ensue. Moreover, Pichai has made efforts to reverse the previous leadership's approach to news organizations themselves in that he wants collaboration to be high between those organizations and Google. One possible end goal of that cooperation, as expressed by Pichai, is to promote more historically reliable news sources over others, even though the information provided by those sources may exist behind a paywall. With that said, tensions are running high and there have been accusations that those sources are, in and of themselves, propagating false information. Worse still, Google recently ran into some trouble when it was discovered that alleged Russian influences were provided advertising space on its platforms during and leading up to the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. Whether or not those allegations turn out to be true may, in fact, be completely irrelevant since what the circumstance really shows is a growing distrust of the authority and power that technology giants represent. It also highlights, again, how difficult it can be to juggle Google's own interests as a company with its obligation to provide its users with accurate information.

In addition to those already weighty issues, Google has summarily faced legal problems over what has been called its monopolistic behavior. The company maintains that it is simply trying to provide users with the information and tools they need, with as little inconvenience as possible. That hasn't prevented heavy fines from the European Union or decisions from the Russian government which forced the company to stop setting its own search engine as the default in some regions. Looking past those examples of turmoil, the company has also been slammed in Latin America for its refusal to remove content deemed harmful to businesses. More backlash has stemmed from the company's handling of an employee who was eventually fired, decisively, after he released an internal memo that the company says goes against its policies. Meanwhile, the company's active participation in - or at very least endorsement of - protests against immigration bans has churned the waters of controversy further.

Each of these issues could be viewed as unrelated and could be portrayed as part of a very serious problem with Google's leadership. With that said, Sundar Pichai has been, interestingly enough, taking each issue as it arises on a case-by-case basis. He also seems to be, at very least, attempting to keep personal opinions on the sidelines in addressing each newly occurring problem. Despite being an immigrant himself, for example, his expressed reason for allowing Googlers to participate in the above-mentioned protests was similar to his own personal reasons for attending. Rather than as a political stance, the CEO claims to have taken part as more of a practical strategy to remain on the side of his employees - many of which could be negatively affected by a travel or immigration ban. It was an action taken in light of the fact that negative impacts on the companies employees would negatively impact Google itself. That same sentiment lay behind Pichai's decision to terminate the employment of the engineer behind the internal memo. On the other hand, conversely, the company has also defended decisions that, at least on the surface, place it on the other side of the proposed free-speech argument.

Underscoring all of this is Pichai's commitment to discussing the issues at hand where he can and taking a hard-line approach where it seems necessary for the survival of the company. The reality is that Google seems to be under attack from all sides because the company has chosen not to remain indifferent. That choice likely stems from a realization that the issues and, more importantly, the controversies would remain, regardless of how Google responds to them because of the divisiveness inherent in the issues. By taking the issues on more directly, Pichai is in more control over how the company is viewed in light of its handling of mistakes. It also opens the door to dialogue, which could ultimately lead to realistic solutions to those issues.

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About the Author

Daniel Golightly

Senior Staff Writer
Daniel has been writing for AndroidHeadlines since 2016. As a Senior Staff Writer for the site, Daniel specializes in reviewing a diverse range of technology products and covering topics related to Chrome OS and Chromebooks. Daniel holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Software Engineering and has a background in Writing and Graphics Design that drives his passion for Android, Google products, the science behind the technology, and the direction it's heading. Contact him at [email protected]
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