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In the EU, Google’s idealism meets its match

Google cofounder Sergey Brin used to delight in publicly attacking his company’s nemesis, Microsoft, by calling it a “convicted monopolist.”

In his mind, nearly a decade ago, Google (GOOG) was the good guy looking out for its users and fellow online businesses. Microsoft (MSFT) was the epitome of bad after a judge found that it had illegally harmed competition and the company later settled the case on appeal.

Fast forward to today, and Google is facing its own antitrust fight after being charged Wednesday with monopolistic behavior by European regulators. Times change.

The European Commission accused Google of favoring its own shopping search results while downplaying those of rival comparison shopping engines to lower on the results page. It’s also looking into whether Google squelched competition by requiring mobile phones companies using its Android operating system to also add Google-branded apps like YouTube to be prominently featured on their devices.

Maybe Google can make a winning argument that it did not abuse its dominant position. But the case is just another example of how the company has, over the years, lost its one-time image as a plucky startup taking on a sometime shady industry.

Google, long ago, moved past its early idealistic ethos of “don’t be evil.” That’s not to ding Google, in particular. Virtually all companies that espouse a do-gooder philosophy eventually make concessions in the name of sales and profits. It’s just that Google was so upfront about its anti-evil motto and so visible when it inevitably fell short.

Early on, Google pledged to never censor its search results. Then it did—starting in 2006—as a way to make inroads in the potentially lucrative China market. Four years later, following withering criticism, it reversed course. Despite its detour into censoring results about Tibet and Tiananmen Square to Chinese users, Google still—improbably—claims that the “don’t be evil” mantra is “about providing our users unbiased access to information.”

More recently, Google has repeatedly fallen far short in privacy. It paid a record $22.5 million civil penalty to the Federal Trade Commission in 2012 over accusations that it violated the privacy of Safari browser users by tracking them with cookies to better serve them with targeted advertising. A year earlier, Google had settled a separate complaint involving its now-shuttered Buzz social networking service. Users, it turned out, didn’t have much choice in joining the service, deleting their accounts, and easily controlling the information they shared.

This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list of Google’s transgressions and the many criticisms against it; that would be a far longer story. But it serves as a reminder about how companies, usually young ones, talk up their idealism about making the world a better place while criticizing rivals for failing to do so. Then later, when big and profitable, the real world intervenes with all of its compromises, screw-ups, and bad decisions.