Is Google becoming a 'Bond' villain?
From data mining to mysterious barges, the Internet giant sometimes seems at odds with its 'Don't be evil' philosophy. But a positive image plays a crucial role in its success.
By Dana Blankenhorn
NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Recently I noted that Amazon.com (AMZN) founder Jeff Bezos has entered the "Bond villain" stage of his career -- a point where he's larger than life, and where every pronouncement he makes, no matter how strange (Let's have drones deliver packages!) is seen as brilliant insight.
Blofeld was the "super villain" in nine different Bond films, and was played by a succession of actors, most memorably by Donald Pleasence, his head shaved, stroking a white cat in "You Only Live Twice."
How does a company whose unofficial motto was "Don't be evil" suddenly appear to be the personification of evil? Mainly it's a product of its own success.
Google's profits have let it indulge its leaders' whims in everything from wearable computers to life extension to self-driving cars, robots and barges mysteriously floating in the bay. Its wealth has elevated real estate prices in San Francisco to infinity.
All of which led to a false confrontation Monday in San Francisco, where a union organizer named Max Alper, pretending to be a Google employee, shouted, "This is a city for the right people who can afford it. You can't afford it? You can leave. I'm sorry, get a better job."
The San Francisco Bay Guardian posted a video of the diatribe, which went viral before Alper's true identity emerged. What's troubling is that so many people believed the original conception. They believed that Alper was part of Google, and that Google believes the nonsense he was spouting.
What Alper was portraying is known in political philosophy as the Problem of the Loyal Henchman. Why, after the villain has fled, does his private militia still try to kill the hero? Is it loyalty to Blofeldism, whatever that is?
And if that's true, what is Googleism? That's something CEO Larry Page needs to define, something he needs to get in front of quickly, or the sympathy he's gained over the Alper incident could quickly turn against the company.
The widespread belief that Google has become evil -- with the company complaining about the National Security Agency doing things for public safety that Google itself does for profit -- is a sea change in our view of the company that will last long after the protest is forgotten.
Google, along with the other huge San Francisco tech companies that have sprung up in its wake, now has enormous power. With enormous power comes enormous responsibility. Cottage industries spring up to take down the newly powerful (in this case, Google), and the default assumption about them can turn on a dime.
Google has tried to be aware of this possibility. It has beefed up its presence in Washington, hiring a former Republican congresswoman to head its policy shop. It has been transparent in its political contributions following a formal code of conduct which turns the "Don't be evil" mantra into specific, detailed policy.
But as the cover of Google critic Scott Cleland's book "Search and Destroy" illustrates, what looks on the outside like a cute bunny can easily look like a T. Rex to others -- both competitors and potential customers.
Over the last few years Google shares have taken off for the stratosphere, increasing in price by more than 57 percent in just the last year, despite slowing growth, expanding the price-to-earnings ratio (P/E) from about 20 to more than 30.
That's more than twice the current P/E paid for Apple (AAPL), or Microsoft (MSFT) or even mighty IBM (IBM). Sustaining such a valuation requires not just doing everything right, but appearing to do everything right. (Microsoft owns and publishes MSN Money.)
If Google loses its glow, if it's being seen by consumers as a T. Rex rather than as a cute bunny rabbit -- if it's truly viewed as a Bond villain -- the stock has a long way to fall.
At the time of publication the author owned shares in GOOG, AAPL and IBM.
More from TheStreet:
Would you trust Google or anyone else to put a chip in your head as they would like to do. Bing: "Google chip in head". Don't they have enough information about us without giving us "tips" through our thoughts or overheard conversations in our own homes? Scary stuff.
The Boogey man is alive and well in California.
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