COLUMBUS, Ohio — Once upon a time, Google concerned itself with seemingly benign, profit-driven things: the optimal position of online ads for erectile dysfunction drugs, mapping the location of every sports bar in America, churning out free services to further cement a quasi-monopoly in global search.
But these are no longer the comfortable, well-established guardrails around Google.
More than two years ago, as governments on two continents were preparing to launch anti-trust investigations against it, Google began moving aggressively onto the turf of states. Today, Google is arguably one of the most influential nonstate actors in international affairs, operating in security domains long the purview of nation-states: It tracks the global arms trade, spends millions creating crisis-alert tools to inform the public about looming natural disasters, monitors the spread of the flu, and acts as a global censor to protect American interests abroad. Google has even intervened into land disputes, one of the most fraught and universal security issues facing states today, siding with an indigenous group in the Brazilian Amazon to help the tribe document and post evidence about intrusions on its land through Google Earth.
In a new form of digital statecraft, Google's executive chairman Eric Schmidt has traveled to North Korea against State Department wishes. "Keep the government out of regulating the Internet," he recently told an audience on a visit to Myanmar. (Disclosure: Schmidt is the chairman of the New America Foundation board. New America is a partner in Future Tense with Slate and Arizona State University.)
As Google evolves its role on the world stage, the fundamental question might be less about whether states might regulate Google, but whether states can compete against such a powerful, global technology platform. After all, Google appears to have emerged relatively unscathed from the threat of state intervention. In January, it was victorious after a two-year anti-trust investigation by U.S. regulators. Earlier this month, Google settled with European regulators following a two-year inquiry. And for the systematic collection of personal data, such as personal photographs and emails from Wi-Fi networks through its Street View mapping service, Google must pay what amounts to a pittance of a fine to a German privacy regulator.