Google's Mob Mentality Defies U.S. Attorneys General

Microsoft eventually learned that you can't win a battle against the government. Google appears poised to learn the same lesson. The difference: Google's fight goes well beyond separating a browser from an operating system and involves illegal drugs and illicit activities. There's a teachable moment here, writes CIO.com columnist Rob Enderle, but it may cost Google its advertisers.

By Rob Enderle
Fri, June 28, 2013

CIO — Litigation has fascinated me for most of my life. At various times, I've planned for a career an attorney, spent a number of years on litigation strategy and worked in IBM's legal department.

One of the most iconic moments I covered was Microsoft's response to the call to separate Internet Explorer from Windows. Microsoft, in its then-arrogance, essentially went to war with the United States government.

You know how that turned out: Billions in judgments and settlements against Microsoft, the resignation of Bill Gates (since the process took the fun out of the job for him) and close government oversight for much of the last decade. All this hurt Microsoft's independence, competitiveness and financial performance significantly.

Well, I just watched a video from the recent meeting of the National Association of Attorneys General, and it looks like Google has inadvertently gone to war with this entire group. As with the Microsoft antitrust case, I don't expect it to end well.

Death by Arrogance a Painful Way to Go

Companies that grow quickly generally don't understand the limitations to the power they've achieved. It makes sense—you have people who, over a short period of time, go from trying to figure out how to pay rent to being able to buy pretty much whatever they might want. They suddenly start to think they can do anything. The results range from substance abuse to infidelity to privately flouting rules, and laws, which they feel don't apply to them. In many cases, they're right. But not all the time.

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Microsoft, for example, concluded that it could do whatever it wanted with its products. No one had the power to tell it what to do. That's virtually never the case—governments that have standing armies will always have more power than a company—and executives who forget this tend to find their careers, and companies, going through avoidable pain.

Eventually, Microsoft adopted a practice of cooperating with governments. For Google, it appears this process is only just beginning.

Google's War with the U.S. Attorneys General

Among the videos from the June 2013 NAAG meeting, the one to watch is called "Intellectual Property Crimes Online: Dangerous Access to Prescription Drugs and Pirated Content." In this talk, moderator Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood describes Google the same way an AG would have talked about the mob decades ago. I'm not exaggerating.

For example, the attorneys general asked Google about illegal behavior—namely, promoting the sale of drugs without a prescription through auto complete text options in search boxes. Google "lawyered up" in response to letter after letter from Hood and, finally, threatened litigation. Granted, it wasn't the mob's horse head in the bed, but threatening an attorney general is never a good idea.

What's interesting is that, when the AGs made the same request to Yahoo (powered by Microsoft's Bing), Yahoo complied within three days. Years ago, AOL likewise complied when AGs asked the ISP to crack down on child pornography.

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