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20 years on, Google faces its biggest challenges

The search giant brought information to the masses. But two decades after its founding, Google isn’t the whimsical startup it once was.

Portraits of the Founders of Google

Google, founded by Larry Page and Sergey Brin, was founded 20 years ago today. 

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Twenty years ago today, on Sept. 4, 1998, Larry Page and Sergey Brin founded a small internet search company. The two met in grad school at Stanford, where they created a service called Backrub that would crawl the web and rank its pages. Eventually, they renamed their search engine Google.

Two decades later, Google is one of the most powerful companies on the planet. It's made the internet, which in 1998 was still mostly just a hodgepodge of scattered content, more usable and relevant to the average person. It brought information to our fingertips and was one of the first dot-com companies to become so important to us that we made it a verb.

The company bought YouTube in 2006 and allowed us to watch and create videos like never before. With Android, its mobile operating system, it made smartphones a global phenomenon. Alphabet, Google's parent company formed in 2015, is creating self-driving cars, looking for ways to cure cancer and trying to build smart cities.

But as positive as its impact has been, today Google faces some of its biggest challenges.

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The company, the world's largest digital advertiser, is being criticized more and more for its vast data-collection practices, which feed its powerful ad targeting. Misinformation runs rampant on YouTube. Employees are raising ethical concerns about the company's work in developing artificial intelligence for the US military and its reported efforts to create a censored search engine in China. And in just the past week or so, the search giant has become a favorite target for President Donald Trump. The company famous for its onetime "Don't be evil" mantra is under more scrutiny than ever.

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Google has long had the image of a whimsical startup, but the company faces some of its biggest challenges now as it reckons with its scale and influence. 

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"As it hits maturity and adulthood as a company, all those issues are coming to the forefront," said Bob O'Donnell, an analyst at Technalysis Research. "Now that people recognize their influence, they're thinking, 'This is an awful lot of power and control. Is this something one company should have?'"

The blowback isn't bound to end anytime soon. Google,  Facebook and Twitter remain in the doghouse after Russian trolls abused their platforms to sow discord and spread false news among US voters in the 2016 elections. That kind of foul play hasn't ended. Earlier this month, Google said it was removing 58 accounts tied to Iran from YouTube and other Google services for trying to meddle in public opinion.

And the privacy scandals are stacking up. The search giant drew ire from consumers after reports surfaced that employees at third-party email apps could read our emails if we integrated those apps with our Gmail account. Google was hammered again earlier this month, when the Associated Press revealed the company was tracking users' locations even after they'd turned off their phones' location history setting.

Google declined to comment, and would not make Page, Brin or Google CEO Sundar Pichai available for interviews.

A target in Washington

Perhaps Google's biggest challenge, though, is the shift in tone from the federal government. For years, Silicon Valley's cozy ties with Washington were maybe best exemplified by Google's former executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, and his cordial relationship with the Barack Obama administration. (Megan Smith, formerly a top vice president at Google, became the country's chief technologist under Obama.)

But it's been a different story under the Trump administration.

Last week, Trump tweeted that Google's search results are "RIGGED," saying the company is "suppressing voices of Conservatives."

"I think Google has really taken advantage of a lot of people," he later told reporters. "Google and Twitter and Facebook, they're really treading on very, very troubled territory, and they have to be careful."

The next day, he tweeted a video claiming Google promoted former President Obama's State of the Union addresses every January, but not his. Trump added the hashtag #StopTheBias. 

Google denied the accusation, saying the search engine's homepage did indeed promote Trump's address in January. (A screenshot from the Internet Archive, which keeps a record of what appeared on web domains at any given time, also backs up Google's assertion.) Google said it didn't promote either Trump's or Obama's addresses during their first years in office because those speeches aren't technically considered State of the Union addresses.

Later on in the week, Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Republican from Utah, sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission asking it to reopen its probe into Google's search and digital advertising practices, calling reports of anticompetitive conduct by the company "disquieting."

These issues will likely be in the spotlight as Silicon Valley's most powerful leaders head to Capitol Hill this week. On Wednesday, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey are set to testify before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The committee invited Page and Pichai, but so far it looks like Google will be skipping the hearing. So Google isn't doing itself any favors in trying to tamp down the anger in Washington.

"They can't ignore the fact that the government is going to get involved," O'Donnell said. "To just hide from that is naive. You can't avoid real-world issues."

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