Is It Dangerous for Google to Engage in Issue Advocacy?

In an effort to combat anti-homosexual laws that exist in many of the countries in which Google does business, the search engine giant has launched a new “Legalise Love” campaign in conjunction with the Global LGBT Workplace Summit held in London this past weekend. Google has also taken stands on myriad other issues, from piracy to patent reform. Whatever your take on the particular issues, some observers wonder how much political advocacy is appropriate for a company like Google.

Not  a Surprise

That Google took this latest stance is no surprise: The company has already made public declarations against California’s Proposition 8 to ban same-sex marriages in that state, covered the cost of a tax that gay and lesbian employees pay when their partners received domestic partner health benefits, and sponsored the It Gets Better Project.

Nor is the stance as ambitious as some initially reported when Google announced the new campaign, set to launch in Singapore and Poland today. Some reports, such as this one from the dot429.com blog, had indicated the new program was actually an international call to legalize gay marriage (the story has since been corrected).

Instead, Google’s initiative is aimed at ensuring equality in the workplace.

“In all of our 60 offices around the world, we are committed to cultivating a work environment where Googlers can be themselves and thrive. We also want our employees to have the same inclusive experience outside of the office, as they do at work, and for LGBT communities to be safe and to be accepted wherever they are,” Google’s announcement read.

Google's Support Matters

The addition of Google’s voice to the rights of its workers, and of workers globally, is a very important event. Google carries weight, after all, and its corporate officers have a right to make the company’s policies well known. This is not in dispute, and Google has taken advantage of its freedom of speech before. For instance, Google was very much involved in the January 17 protests of the failed SOPA and PIPA bills that helped kill the bills in their respective congressional committees.

The question of whether Google will always be neutral in a cause has been answered: They won’t. But is taking any stance on any political issue an appropriate role for Google?

The Wikipedia Comparison

When Wikimedia joined the anti-SOPA/PIPA protestors for Internet Blackout Day in January, the organization behind Wikipedia made it very clear that as a neutral provider of information, they would not be making a habit of such stances.

“What Wikimedia and what the people who edit Wikipedia really want to do is edit Wikipedia. Advocacy isn’t our subject area of expertise, nor is how to prevent online piracy, to be honest,” Wikimedia Foundation spokesman Jay Walsh told NPR’s All Things Considered on January 31.

Putting aside for a moment whether one agrees with Google’s stance on the latest issues (for the record, I do), there seems a very real danger when the largest, most influential company filtering the flow of information among billions of people takes a stance on anything beyond basic human rights.

Many would argue that LGBT equality is indeed such a right. And certainly Google had a vested business interest in keeping SOPA and PIPA off the board. But just by the virtue of its vast influence, Google could easily find itself under fire by coming down on either side of a controversial issue.

The Limits of Neutrality

For some issues, neutrality may not be the best approach, either. There are many causes - fighting illicit human trafficking, for example - that receive nearly unanimous support. And under U.S. law at least, Google is free to state its mind about anything.

But Google is a unique company: It is perhaps the world’s dominant dealer in the currency of information. As such, it may need to maintain its image of neutrality in much the same way Wikimedia does - at least in the area of the information and services it provides, if not in its corporate practices. At a bare minimum, Google needs to ensure, transparently, that any advocacy in which it chooses to engage doesn't affect the search results it provides to users.

Even though Google isn’t really a content creator, it’s increasingly finding itself held to similar standards as traditional publishing companies. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Even with the best of intentions, do we really want the gatekeepers of the Internet influencing what information we can access based on their own moral compass? After all, the very thing that one group may want to promote could be the same thing another group is trying desperately to stop.