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9/25/2008
06:16 PM
Thomas Claburn
Thomas Claburn
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Google's Charity, At Your Expense

Google on Wednesday launched a contest to solicit ideas about how to help humanity. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but would-be contest participants should think carefully before acting selflessly.

Google on Wednesday launched a contest to solicit ideas about how to help humanity. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but would-be contest participants should think carefully before acting selflessly."To mark our 10th birthday and celebrate the spirit of our users and the Web, we're launching Project 10^100 (that's 'ten to the hundredth') a call for ideas that could help as many people as possible, and a program to bring the best of those ideas to life," Andy Berndt, managing director at Google's Creative Lab, said in a blog post.

Project 10100 allows Internet users to submit ideas about how to make life better. The problems addressed can be related to social, financial, energy, environmental, health, educational, or housing issues, or something else entirely. (Unfortunately, this catch-all category is unlikely to cover political problems that might best be addressed by a change of regime.)

The goal, Google says, is to help people and to empower people to help others.

Google has committed $10 million to fund up to five of the best ideas, as determined by Google's advisory board. The submission deadline is Oct. 20. On Jan. 27, 2009, the top 100 ideas, as determined by Google staff, will be presented for the public to vote on. The top 20, chosen by the public, will be winnowed to five or less by the advisory committee and announced in February.

What do contest participants get for their gifts of thought? "You get good karma and the satisfaction of knowing that your idea might truly help a lot of people," Google says.

Google gets a bit more than that out of the deal. It gets thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of dollars of free publicity out of its sponsorship of the contest. That's the sort of thing Google, as an advertising provider, knows and values. Were Google's interest purely philanthropic, it could donate $10 million without announcing its generosity to the world.

But more subtly troubling is that Google's insistence that contest participants part with their ideas without compensation echoes the company's tradition of making use of people's intellectual property without payment. What is Google's index after all, not to mention YouTube, but a treasure trove made from words copied from copyrighted content? Those words might be worthless in isolation but they're invaluable aggregated and indexed.

If you have a good idea, a really good idea, the sort of brilliant idea that might win Google's contest -- a way to produce a $0.01 straw that removes all impurities from contaminated water, for example -- why give that valuable idea away when you could commercialize it? You could start a company to support your idea, provide jobs to people, and help humanity at the same time.

Worker exploitation is a serious social issue around the globe. Knowledge workers need to be aware that they, too, can be exploited.

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