The Curse of “Don’t Be Evil”

By  |  Thursday, February 2, 2012 at 1:01 pm

So it’s official: By merging its various privacy policies into one master policy that permits it to intermingle the things it knows about you, Google has become evil. Or at least that’s the stance of Gizmodo’s Mat Honan, who isn’t alonein his furor:

Honan’s declaration of evil is a riff on Google’s famous unofficial motto, “Don’t be evil,” which was apparently proposed by staffers Paul Buchheit and Amit Patel at a 2001 meeting. Google continues to saying that not being evil is one of its core principles to this day. So the fact that Honan and others are saying that the company has finally crossed an ethical line into evilhood is a unique, sad moment in Google history.

Except…

People have been accusing Google of being evil–or at least wondering whether it has become so–for almost as long as Google has been claiming that it isn’t evil. I can’t lay my hands on any examples from 2001 or 2002, but it became a hot topic in 2003 and has never let up.

Consider these pieces of evidence (one for each year!).

Josh McHugh in Wired, January 2003:

Andrew Orlowski, The Register, April 2004:

Preston Gralla on Windows DevCenter, August 2005:

Adam Penenberg in Mother Jones, October 2006:

Mike Masnick on Techdirt, April 2007:

Saul Hansell on NYTimes.com, November 2008:

&

Edward Cone on CIO Insight, October 2009:

Adam Green on the The Huffington Post, August 2010:

Robert X. Cringely, InfoWorld, August 2011:

At first, back when Google was largely uncontroversial, “Don’t be evil” seemed like it was a marketing masterstroke. If Google said it wasn’t evil, people assumed, it wasn’t evil.

Overall, though, I think it’s been an albatross for the company. By being holier-than-thou, it practically demanded that the world hold it to a higher standard. Maybe a standard that it’s impossible for a large public company to maintain. (If it were Yahoo making these privacy changes, nobody would care.)

Now Google can’t ever backpedal on its promise. Whether it’s tweaking its privacy policies in ways that might bolster advertising, or promoting Google+ in Google search results, it’s going to be on the defensive forever.

No, Google isn’t evil. But it is at least as prone to human frailties as any other entity. And thinking that it would be a good idea to declare itself as more moral than other companies is Exhibit A.

 
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6 Comments For This Post

  1. @BSnyderSF Says:

    If anyone ever endows a chair in the history of American tech, I nominate you, Harry. Love the historical perspective you bring to the table.

  2. Andrew Brandt Says:

    Let’s not leave out Greg Conti’s 2009 book Googling Security: How Much Does Google Know About You?

    Conti doesn’t grandstand about a subjective term like ‘evil’ but he does comment, in the last paragraph of the book, “With the tremendous power at Google’s disposal comes great responsibility. I hope they use it wisely.”

    The problem here is that we, as users and customers of Google’s various services, are reliant solely on “hope” that the company will follow a path of good corporate ethics. The fact is, we have no input whatsoever into how Google decides to operate its business, and the reason Google feels empowered to make this decision has a lot to do with the fact that Google must feel it can weather this PR storm and go about doing business. Nothing will change until the company faces a backlash that does threaten its bottom line, and I just don’t see that happening.

  3. Stilgar Says:

    When I read the new Google Privacy Policy, my reaction wasn't ZOMG! it was more like, "Wait, they weren't already doing this?"

  4. scottph Says:

    The bad stuff going on at Google recently has prompted me to leave all their services for good. http://scottsscripts.wordpress.com/2012/02/02/how

  5. Scott Says:

    Albatrosses are *good* luck. Shooting them is a bad idea….

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Rime_of_the_Anci

  6. JohnFen Says:

    “Evil” is a very strong term. I don’t think Google’s new policy is doing evil. However, their policy of forcing data sharing between services is well beyond what I’m comfortable with. It just make Google like any other large corporation.

    I’ve almost entirely stopped using Google services as a result. There are only two things now that I haven’t yet completely shed: I use an Android phone, and I use a third-party web site that requires the use of Google’s login system. I’ll be ditching that third-party service, and I don’t use Google services or participate in their data collection on my phone. I’m hoping that I can divorce my phone entirely from Google through the use of a replacement ROM, but if not, then I simply won’t renew my contract when the time comes, and hope there will be a reasonable agnostic alternative available at that time. I’m not even using Google for search anymore.

    What I found surprising is how easy all of this was. I expected inconvenience and pain, but the inconvenience is slight at best and there has been no pain. The range and quality of alternatives is really much better than it has been in a long time.

    So, goodbye Google. It was nice while it lasted.

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