Glass Bottom Boat: Google's Control Over its Secrets Becomes Clearer

Weeks after journalists began investigating a stack of orphaned shipping containers floating off the coast of Treasure Island, the mysterious structure remains a subject of mass fascination — and confusion. First, reporters at local news station KPIX 5 confirmed that it belonged to Google Inc., though the news station couldn't divine its purpose. Within hours, tech reporters unearthed scores of clues that turned out to be red herrings. Google had secured a patent for a floating data center in 2009, so perhaps the four-story ark housed its computer systems. Or maybe it was a research-and-development site for Google Glass. Or a future retail store. Or a science and technology museum, albeit one with a promotional ax to grind. Or a glove thrown at Apple. Or an art project. Or a publicity stunt gone too far.

The only thing we know for sure is that it's not a flux capacitor.

Even after KPIX 5 reporters claimed they'd unmasked Google's strange Flying Dutchman as a combination showroom and party boat, observers remained skeptical. And the various regulators tasked with overseeing the project offered little insight.

“We're looking for a clear characterization of this thing, and we haven't been given it, yet,” National Park Service spokesman Howard Levitt says, explaining that Google had approached both the Park Service and its tenant, Fort Mason, about docking the barge — but the company had yet to disclose its plans.

It turns out that such evasiveness is typical of a company that pretends to embrace openness; Google's mission statement, after all, is to “organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Even more surprising is the apparently pedestrian nature of the boat, which, many sources speculate, is really a three-story showroom topped with a party deck, designed for VIP fetes. It's coming together under the auspice of Google co-founder Sergey Brin, which goes to show how important a floating retail store is to the company's business plan. That's tantamount to an emperor designing topiary for the castle garden.

Yet tech companies are incredibly protective of their garden designs — or rather, the retail equivalent. Apple even holds a patent for the staircase configuration in its stores, just as Google has a patent for the idea of floating data centers. But the now-infamous mystery barge may never find mooring, because Google refuses to put its business plan up for public scrutiny. The company is so reflexively hush-hush that it rushes to protect even its most garish project — a giant structure that falls within eyeshot of hundreds of thousands of daily Bay Bridge commuters.

That's put city and state officials in the awkward position of standing up to one of the most powerful Internet companies in the world. Mayor Ed Lee quickly extricated himself by announcing, through a spokeswoman, that Google had kept him in the dark about its project. Google's aloofness also made this corporate vessel a perfect parable of tech secrecy butting up against old-fashioned regulatory roadblocks, and creating the same kind of stir that rideshare companies Uber and Lyft provoked when they refused to uncloak their insurance policies.

It's no surprise that powerful companies want to protect their trade secrets, nor is the practice particularly new. Coca-Cola kept its secret recipe in a vault for decades, while Dr. John J. Reynolds amassed millions in licensing fees from companies wanting to emulate his antiseptic mouthwash, Listerine. Even WD-40, the lubricant used to grease skateboard wheels and loosen stuck bolts, was so heavily classified that the chemist who invented it fetched $10,000 for his formula. (It's now available for free on Wikipedia, since he neglected to file a patent.) Throughout history, corporations have gone to great lengths to secure their assets, to cut private deals with governments, and to exploit economies overseas. If Google's behavior seems cagey, it certainly doesn't lack for historical antecedents. Coke, Pepsi, Monsanto, Shell, and Unocal certainly don't want the public peering at their books.

But there's something unsettling about a company being so cloak-and-dagger when it traffics in information. Nobody would really care if Coca-Cola were building a VIP showroom on a barge — or any other brand-building endeavor. But Google affects the public interest in ways that Coca-Cola cannot. When the Silicon Valley search giant negotiated broadband deals with Kansas City (first in Kansas, then in Missouri), and Austin, Texas, it came to the table as an equal. Though Google was installing fiber-optic infrastructure throughout the cities, the cities themselves stayed mum about many of the specifics of the project, per Google's iron-clad contracts. When members of the Coast Guard inspected Google's floating facility, the company enjoined them to sign non-disclosure agreements.

Certainly, companies don't have carte blanche to hide their new product plans, writes Villanova Assistant Law Professor Michael Risch via e-mail. Risch cites the 2006 appellate case O'Grady v. Superior Court of Santa Clara, in which the publisher of an online software magazine managed to stave off charges that he'd pilfered Apple's trade secrets by writing about unreleased products. (Apple is so famously tight-lipped that it seldom unveils new products until two weeks before they're due to ship, Risch points out.) But, he adds, there's a value to trade secrets law even when it piques journalists and drives Google into a bunker mentality.

“It gives us a framework to determine when 'transparency' is outweighed by private rights,” in this case, the right of a business to shield its operations from the prying eyes of journalists, Risch explains. And that goes both ways. After all, if you ran a small business shipping goods into the U.S., would you want the contents of all your vessels to be subject to public records requests?

Perhaps not. In this case, though, Google didn't need to rely on trade laws for protection — it had contracts. It had people willing to keep their mouths shut. It had the backing of government officials who would rather protect the company than court the press. “It wasn't the law that kept [those] barges secret,” Risch writes, “it was the fact that no one had access.”

For a company that treats accessibility as a credo, that's more than a little ironic.

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