In a world where the entire concept of the office is being reimagined, Google is a trendsetter. As Georgia Tech students, everyone hears about the computer science majors who snag a job at Google, Amazon, Apple, etc., not only because of the generous salary attached to the job, but also because of the famous office environment provided by American tech companies. The office in Brussels may be smaller, but the inside lived up to my expectations for what Google should look like. Our three young hosts, dressed in jeans, began the tour by showing us the “canteen” where all employees are provided breakfast and lunch each day. It was decorated like a traditional Belgian brasserie because Google tries to incorporate aspects of the culture of where the office is located—wherever it may be in the world. We then walked through a room with shelves of books and video games that was decorated to give it a nature-y feel: the floor looked like grass, the walls had plants growing on them, there was a large fish tank, the chairs were circular and white, and the windows stretched from floor to ceiling. Walking to the next room we passed a small gym where employees can workout whenever they feel like it, then go to the locker rooms to shower and get back to work. We stopped in a massive, open room that had a pool table, a couch, a large flat screen on the wall for video games, about 7 exercise balls, and a masseuse. Yes—a masseuse—so that employees could sign up for an hour-long massage after a tiring week of work.
Gaping, we walked back upstairs to the room we were briefed in which—of course—was mainly sleek and white with windows from floor to ceiling, multiple large screens, a ping pong table, a full bar, and large lettering on the wall that spelled “Goooooogle” to ensure it was picturesque. Since it was Friday afternoon, we had to keep the conversation short so that the Google employees could engage in a few intense games of ping pong and enjoy a Belgian beer together to celebrate the end of the work week. Seemingly over-the-top and ridiculous, what is Google’s reason for ensuring that their employees eat their meals together, workout whenever they want, play video games, pool, and ping pong together, and top off the week with a massage and a drink? Despite criticism from people in grey suits in cubicles that the employees work at a playground, Google stands firm in their belief that people will be both more creative and efficient if they can take a break, take care of themselves, and spend non-work time with their colleagues than if they are forced to work through lunch. It may be that I just want to believe it, but it seems like it would be the “right environment to work well and be a happy person” as one of our hosts put it. Whether it works or not—Google can hire me any day!
Continuing with the trend of progressivism, upon entering the room for the second half of the tour we were introduced to Google Arts and Culture. Google partners with museums to digitalize art work and upload it online so that people can see “as much culture as they want” without having to travel to museums all over the world. Not only does this idea allow people to see artwork that they may never have had the opportunity to see, but the quality is so good that it allows people who have already seen the artwork in person to see more of it. I could not believe my eyes when they zoomed into a very intricate painting so that we could see the shadow of a person that I could not even see when looking at the whole painting. Not only is Google expanding their services online, they are also expanding the issues they’re expected to have answers to. In the past two years, there has been a convergence of every single social problem becoming an internet problem and Google—being the most used search engine in the world—is expected to find a solution. Google’s scope and influence is so large that it must be careful when addressing seemingly unimportant issues to most of the world like whether to call the Czech Republic “Czechia” or not because if Google calls it Czechia, the world calls it Czechia. This massive sphere of influence comes with massive responsibilities like finding an answer to the question, “What role does the Internet play in radicalizing terrorists?” They said that these newfound responsibilities are contradictory because many people fear that Google is too big, but then continue to ask them to do more. Despite variations in public opinion, I think that Google welcomes their growing role and realizes that, in a globalized world, the Internet plays a vital part in both development and progress. The company is currently working to ensure that people in places like India, Africa, and South America have access to the Internet, and that with this development comes the presence of an ongoing global discussion to create a democratic forum for progress.
Turns out our hosts weren’t computer scientists, business majors, or engineers, but that they work in the realm of international affairs and politics—giving the INTA majors in the room hope that we too can work in a cool tech office one day. One of them focused on consumer protection and competition policy, dealing specifically with the European Commission and the member states on a daily basis to discuss their policy concerns and try to help them better understand artificial intelligence and its importance in the business world. The other two hosts worked for the European Parliament prior to Google, and therefore bring insight when dealing with educating member states on the importance of policies like the Digital Single Market. Just like any organization operating within the European context, Google Europe struggles to build consensus across the 28 member states in 24 different languages. To give a simple example of these challenges, they told us how they “can’t use puns” because everything is translated. However, there is some benefit to operating within such a complicated context—Google Translate draws much of their data from public translations done by European Institutions.
As we’ve learned throughout this entire trip, operating within the European context varies greatly from operating within an American one, so how does a company originating in Silicon Valley adapt in an environment like Brussels? The answer is to find a balance between conducting business as an American company while taking into account European consumer values. While the American consumer values personal liberties and freedom of speech more than anything, the European consumer largely values their security. Due to history, Europeans are very skeptical over the government or large institutions having too much access to their data, especially the large American tech companies that control cyberspace.
This skepticism is shown in the European Commission’s close watch on these companies and their readiness to take action against them when they feel the European citizen is being compromised. Actions have been taken against Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, and Google—including the most recent decision by the Commission to fine Google a record 2.4 billion euros for breaching their dominant position by promoting Google Shopping over other comparison shopping services. Google stands that they were not in the wrong because they don’t think people use Google Shopping when online shopping but instead go straight to determined sites. As they have been challenged by European values, their American values are tested when operating abroad too. For example, they recently lost a case in the Canadian Supreme Court where the court ruled they were obligated to remove websites promoting pirated products—not just in Canada, but universally. Google argued that this set a precedent that goes against freedom of speech, especially having to remove entire webpages worldwide, but the Canadian Supreme Court won on the premise that their argument was rhetorical and a similar situation would not happen again. Ironically, Google has already been forced by some European courts to take search results down due to a “right to be forgotten.”
Operating internationally, it is expected that a company coming from the U.S., a country with unique values, is going to face challenges. Although they do not win every time, the company does what they can to stick to their values like the practice of writing transparency reports to give the public information on how their government is interacting with Google and their decision to leave China, despite the massive market potential, due to the Chinese request that they filter out certain results. Google adapts some of their decisions based on where in the world they are operating, but in the end the decisions must be coherent and go back to their American roots because there cannot be ten different Google’s around the world. Google’s motto is “Don’t be evil” which although is somewhat comical, is actually perfect. For a company in a position of massive power and influence all over the world and operating in many different environments, “don’t be evil” is a simple way for the company to not forget their values.
“We have tried to define precisely what it means to be a force for good – always do the right, ethical thing. Ultimately, ‘Don’t be evil’ seems the easiest way to summarize it.”—Google co-founder, Sergey Brin