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Taking on Google

Nick Bryant | 09:57 UK time, Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Who needs the Australian comedy troupe The Chaser when the Rudd government appears to be declaring war on everything? First, it is the resources sector, with the proposed super tax on the mining companies super profits. Now, comes a ferocious assault on the internet giant, Google. Previous corporate targets have included Telstra, the formerly state-owned Australian telecommunications company, fat-cat salaries and what Kevin Rudd has called "extreme capitalism".

The attack on Google came from the communications minister, Senator Stephen Conroy, who was appearing before a Senate committee looking into the government's controversial plans for an internet filter. He accused the company of "probably the single greatest breach in the history of privacy", a reference to the Google Street View cars which were found to be gathering information on peoples' wireless connections, a practice discontinued once it became public.

In a very personalised attack, and with the freedom offered by parliamentary privilege, Senator Conroy singled out Google's chief executive, Eric Schmidt, describing his approach as "a bit creepy, frankly". He also said that Google considered itself above governments: "When it comes to their attitude to their own censorship, their response is simply, 'trust us'. That is what they actually state on their website: 'Trust us'."

The Greens Senator, Scott Ludlam, called it a "ten-minute tirade of corporate character assassination".

Google has been a strong critic of what has been dubbed the Great Firewall of Australia, arguing that the proposed filter would slow down the internet, mistakenly block innocent material, and be easy, in any case, to circumvent. Senator Conroy insists his comments should not be interpreted as retaliation or payback. For its part, Google has released a written statement saying it was surprised that the Senator's remarks came during a hearing into the internet filter.

As the federal election approaches, it could be argued that a bunker mentality appears to overtaking the Labor high command. With the party slipping in the polls, perhaps it feels the need to shore up its traditional basic by lashing out at the corporate sector. If so, it seems a curious strategy from a prime minister who went to such lengths at the last election to portray himself as a fiscal conservative and a friend of business.

It might also prove politically counter-productive. The mining super tax has not been the populist vote-winner which the government probably assumed it would be, and could badly harm the ALP in resource-rich Western Australia. The message from the mining giants that Australia is in danger of slaying the goose that lays the golden egg might also be gaining traction, especially at a time with the Aussie dollar, a commodity-linked currency, has started to slide and when the stock market is so very volatile.

In its early years, the Rudd government was renowned for its cautious self-discipline and the precision of its politics. But could the attack on Google be viewed as more evidence that the government is losing its cool, if not its temper?


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