By Alistair Coleman
A senior Google figure has defended the search engine's indexing, privacy and copyright policies.
Old copies of Euclid's Elements in Greek will be digitised by Google
In his speech to the Oxford Internet Institute, senior product counsel Alexander Macgillivray described Google as "a turnpike to elsewhere on the web, where users choose to return", based around the company's mission statement to organise the world's information, making it universally accessible and useful.
But he conceded that this approach has led to accusations that Google could invade the privacy of internet users, and raise concerns from copyright holders.
"We totally believe we have the right to index absolutely everything on the internet, but we will respect any webmaster's decision not to be included," said the California-based legal counsel.
This is reflected in the search engine's "remove" tool, which allows content to be taken out of Google's index at the request of the copyright holder or the owner of the page.
Addressing privacy concerns, Mr Macgillivray referred to Google's informal corporate slogan, coined by the company's co-founder Sergey Brin: "Don't be evil".
Although Google could invade the privacy of its many users and harvest confidential information, Mr Macgillivray told the Oxford seminar that company procedure is guided by a policy never to take part in such activities, with "Don't be evil" used as a so-called "A-Bomb" in any policy discussion.
The introduction in last year of Google's e-mail project, Gmail, led to a number of privacy advocates, such as the World Privacy Forum and the Washington-based Center for Democracy and Technology, noting that advertising directed at the user based on the body text of an e-mail, even if undertaken by machine, may be defined as an invasion of privacy.
Google has recently rewritten its privacy policies in response to these accusations.
Mr Macgillivray stressed the importance of respecting local legal regimes, but since it does not actually own the information to which it is directing web surfers, their privacy remains paramount.
Data from Yahoo was said to have helped jail a Chinese journalist
"Google's mission is to mirror the web, not police it", he said. The company would only intervene to change or remove contentious listings if required to do so by local law.
There is the danger, however, that local legal regimes may request otherwise private information from web content providers and indexers, such as in the case of Chinese journalist Shi Tao in April 2005.
It later emerged that information gleaned from Yahoo Holdings (Hong Kong) was used in convicting Shi of "divulging state secrets abroad", a move condemned by press watchdogs the Campaign to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders.
The recent addition of Google Print to the search engine's portfolio appears to have opened up a legal minefield for the company.
Google has started scanning the text of books into its indexing system, allowing users to search the content of copyrighted works.
Described by Google's Adam Mathes as a project to "preserve public domain books", Google Print is seen as a digital library pointing users either to texts of copyright-free publications, or places to purchase copyrighted items.
Despite reaching agreement with a number of libraries and publishers, such as Oxford's Bodleian Library, and with Google at pains to publicise the positive aspects of its book-scanning programme, the company found itself at odds with the Association of American Publishers and the Authors Guild.
Both of whom allege that Google has infringed the copyright of its members.
Mr Macgillivray pointed out that a Google Print search only returns snippets of text, which the user cannot copy. If anything, copyright holders stand to benefit from Google Print, he said.
Rather than antagonise the publishing community further, he told the Oxford seminar, Google was actively searching for a compromise that all parties would find acceptable.