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True colors

It is profound what being a public company can do to the core values of a young company. It was less than two years ago that Google Inc. co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin thumbed their noses at the U.S. investment banking community with an auction-based IPO and their pledge not to cave in to the short-term demands of Wall Street.

Their mantra was "do no evil," and the company's mission statement still says Google's goal is to "organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." Even with one of the largest market valuations of any U.S. company, Google (GOOG: news, chart, profile) tries to set itself apart from its rivals -- Yahoo (YHOO: news, chart, profile) , Microsoft's (MSFT: news, chart, profile) MSN and Time Warner's (TWX: news, chart, profile) AOL -- by underscoring its high-minded philosophical goal to "resist the temptation to make small sacrifices to increase shareholder value."

It passionately claims that, "Google has steadfastly refused to make any change that does not offer a benefit to the users who come to the site."

Yet Google's announcement Tuesday that it will comply with China's repressive laws by doctoring its search results in that country makes a mockery of those values.

Google is making a sacrifice, and a big one at that, risking its democratic image for more access in a country that will contribute very little business in the near future. Right move for shareholders? Possibly. Ironic move? Yes. Noble move? Hardly. Maybe China's riches are worth it. I don't think so. But when you've tasted billions -- like Brin and Page -- I guess you can hire a boatload of attorneys to justify any choices you make.

A successful serial entrepreneur friend once said that when starting a business, one has to know whether they're doing it because they want to change the world in a good way, or because they want to make money. It's one or the other, not both. He is right. We often have lofty goals. We often remind ourselves of them, as Google does of its own. But more often than not we fail to achieve them. The world changes us far more than we can change it.

Watch my interview with Kurt Opsahl, an attorney at EFF

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