What Google really means by “Don’t be evil”

“Live long and prosper… oh, and don’t be evil.”
“Live long and prosper… oh, and don’t be evil.”
Image: Reuters/Larry Downing
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“The famous Google mantra of ‘Don’t be evil’ is not entirely what it seems.” Those words come not from a detractor of the company but from Eric Schmidt, its executive chairman, and Jonathan Rosenberg, an advisor to Larry Page, in their new book, How Google Works.

From the book:

Yes, it genuinely expresses a company value and aspiration that is deeply felt by employees. But “Don’t be evil” is mainly another way to empower employees… Googlers do regularly check their moral compass when making decisions.

Schmidt and Rosenberg cite the example of an engineer who, in a meeting in 2001, objected to a proposed change in the way Google’s advertising system works by banging his fist on the table, yelling, “We can’t do that, it would be evil.” It is a nice anecdote, one that Schmidt clearly likes; he’s rolled it out before in an NPR interview and again at a Financial Times event in London. At that event, Schmidt also repeated the mantra that Google is “for users, not websites,” a line that has been bouncing around Google’s Europe’s policy pronouncements for at least four years.

Users users users

The notion that its users are of paramount importance to Google gets a good airing in How Google Works. On the one hand, this is self-evident: Google’s business, like that of any other consumer-facing firm, rests entirely on its ability to attract hundreds of millions of people to its services, giving advertisers an audience and giving Google valuable data to mine in order to improve its services.

The definition of evil, then, rests on what would be bad for users. Or, to be more precise, on what Google thinks is bad for users. It would also, by extension, be bad for Google. The moral compass and the interests of the business point in the same direction.

On the other hand, what Google conceives of as “evil” is necessarily self-serving. If Google believes that Google provides the best services to internet users, then it is not evil to prod those users to Google’s services, even if such actions come at the expense of other businesses. After all, “We built Google for users, not websites.” Naturellement!

None of these things are evil

Pushing people to use Google+? It’s better for them than the data-gobbling, privacy-infringing Facebook. Harvesting wi-fi data? It was only meant to be “analyzed offline for use in other initiatives”—which must, it follows, be for the good of the user. Google’s aggressive tax planning? Users benefit since more money is ploughed into things like providing internet access to rural areas and “solving death.” What about user privacy? Some people are uncomfortable (paywall) with the volume of data collected by Google. Google would argue that it does nothing evil with the data; it is merely used to improve its services, which is ultimately in the interests of the users.

Why should we trust Google when it says none of these these things are “evil”? Because, as Schmidt told an audience member at the London event, “We don’t have the evil room where we go and have evil thoughts.”

In other words, Google simply cannot do evil so long as it believes it is not doing evil. It’s a wonderful image to present to the world—that of a benign, even benevolent corporation striving only for its users, to whom it provides services free. But it also means that Google has effectively redefined what ”evil” means. It is whatever Google thinks it means.

Don’t take my word for it. As Eric Schmidt told Wired way back in 2003, “Evil is what Sergey [Brin] says is evil.”