What if Google was evil?

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Most people know that Google's informal tagline is "Don't be evil." In fact, that phrase comes with a little background, nicely described at Wikipedia:

"Don't be evil" is the informal corporate motto (or slogan) of Google,[1] originally suggested by Google employees Paul Buchheit and Amit Patel at a meeting. Buchheit, the creator of Gmail, said he "wanted something that, once you put it in there, would be hard to take out," adding that the slogan was "also a bit of a jab at a lot of the other companies, especially our competitors, who at the time, in our opinion, were kind of exploiting the users to some extent." However, the official corporate philosophy of Google does not contain the words "Don't be evil". The statement that can be considered nearest to the supposedly 'Don't be evil' motto (so widely circulated by the media) is the 6th point of the 10 point corporate philosophy of Google which says, "You can make money without doing evil."

"Don't be evil" is said to recognize that large corporations often maximize short-term profits with actions that destroy long-term brand image and competitive position. Supposedly, by instilling a Don't Be Evil culture the corporation establishes a baseline for honest decision-making that disassociates Google from any and all cheating. This in turn can enhance the trust and image of the corporation that outweighs short-term gains from violating the Don't Be Evil principles.

It's a great tag line. Mainly because it does effectively paint a vivid picture of what Google is, and/or what Google wants to be. But today, I've been thinking a little more about my "what if" question, a question largely spurred by two separate things.

First: I was listening to a Spark podcast, which brought up the issue of cloud data security (i.e. all of that stuff that you store on other people's servers, such as gmail for example). Here, the interview with Danny Sullivan discussed possible repercussions of hackers attempting to get to your cloud data, the most infamous example, being those attempts aimed at human rights advocates within China.

Second: I was shipping off some iPods to winners of a writing contest, and mulling over whether the Science Creative Quarterly should host another writing contest next year.

It then dawned on me, that it is indeed good (not to use the word too lightly) that Google does prescribe to the "Don't be evil" mantra, because, after all, they are keepers of an inordinate amount of information. Information that is about me, about you, that is trivial, that is significant, that is lucrative, that is powerful.

At that moment, I also realized that some interesting writing could be had, if writers had the chance to tackle the query:

"What if Google was evil?"

Which also brings up the bigger question. In that I have no doubt that Larry and Sergei currently have the best intentions with their work. However, things do change. People change. People move on (literally or mortally as the case may be), and different people take charge. What then?

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I never thought about this before, but it is an interesting questions. I use gmail, google calendars, and google docs all the time, and there is obviously stuff I rather not let anyone see.

I guess the question for me, is whether there are things like privacy laws that make sure that Google doesn't have a chance to become evil?

Although, as we've all seen with the BP oil incident, no system with human input is perfect...

I use gmail, google calendars, and google docs all the time, and there is obviously stuff I rather not let anyone see.

stuff you would rather not let anyone else see should never leave your control. at least not in unencrypted form, and crypto keys should never ever leave your direct control, period.

yes, i'm one of these annoying people. if google isn't evil now, it's just a matter of time, and information on the internet is effectively immortal.

By Nomen Nescio (not verified) on 02 Jun 2010 #permalink

You know what I'd be interested to hear? When we talk about things like "Evil Google," we always say "Because it stores so much potentially damaging information about us." I'd like to know how many of us really do have potentially damaging info out there. And like what?

Obviously Chinese human rights advocates are one thing, but what are you Americans storing in the cloud that's got you nervous? Joe? (How's that for a ridiculous question?)

There is nothing in Google that's particularly damaging to me. My email is normal. My porn tastes are pedestrian. I only googled "Nazis riding on unicorns" once or twice last month.

I'm not saying I don't care, obviously. It's enormously important that our privacy be protected, and it's extra important that those of us who don't have anything to hide don't just stay out of it. (First they came for the pervs, and I didn't speak up...)

I just really wonder how many of us are stricken with fear at the thought of...I suppose we should call it cloud seeding, which is when someone shoots a bunch of stuff into a cloud to make it rain.

I think it's extremely naive to trust Google enough to assume "don't be evil" is anything but a feel good PR catch phrase.

"What if Google was evil?"

Not sure that whether they're evil or not is relevant. Plenty of evil has been done by people, and organizations, that were not inherently 'evil'.

By NoAstronomer (not verified) on 02 Jun 2010 #permalink

"I think it's extremely naive to trust Google enough to assume "don't be evil" is anything but a feel good PR catch phrase."

Their actions in China support their motto.

Also, I'm a software developer and I see that Google contributes A LOT to OpenSource software (which is doubleplusgood in my book).

By Alex Besogonov (not verified) on 02 Jun 2010 #permalink

In that I have no doubt that Larry and Sergei currently have the best intentions with their work.

Oh, they have good intentions? Well, that's all right then - after all, nothing bad ever comes of good intentions, does it?

"Evil" is a useless concept in this sort of context.

The Evil Google exists. It's called Comcast and Verizon.

By Zippy the Pinhead (not verified) on 03 Jun 2010 #permalink

Google being evil is a what if question?

We now know that David does not use Usenet.

By Rick Pikul (not verified) on 04 Jun 2010 #permalink

If Google were to start making sacrifices for short term profit, like search results favoritism, favoritism in service availability, and generally cutting back on all the free awesome that they hand out to the Internet at large, then we would gradually start having to do without. If the wealth added to our Internet by Google started to wane, then I think we would start to see the quality of our lives decrease slightly in thousands of ways. But I don't think this could happen very easily, because the Internet is on a roll. There are millions of very creative people looking for work and recognition on the Internet, and some of the best work at Google.

I think that that creativity and momentum has to find it's expression somewhere, and if Google starts to rot, we (including many Google employees) will just move on and create replacements for all the crucial things that we rely on on a daily basis. The Internet has made us smarter, kinder, and more open-minded. I am banking on the idea that the sheer value it has added to our lives would motivate most of us to do anything to protect it.

I think it is only prudent to assume that google is or eventually will be primarily concerned with interests of stockholders (although the directors may "hijack" the firm and run it in their own interest as happens with innumerable companies where stock is dispersed). Companies are usually only accountable to their users through contracts that they themselvs write and these have a tendency to become brutally one-sided.

The reputation of a company is important, and imposes some limit on how far they can go in serving these interests, but it is a very weak form of accountability and one often subject to fraud on a massive scale, called PR.

I think the character and humanity of the directors and employees is nevertheless important, but without accountability to the public it is only a question of how fast, not when, it goes downhill.