Search on Google for the company’s name plus the phrase “Don’t Be Evil”, and you’ll get 366,000 hits. The company’s <a href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Don%27t_be_evil”>motto has been used at least since 2001</a>, according to Wikipedia.
As someone who has been writing and speaking about business ethics for seven years, I applaud this motto. But I question its authenticity as it applies to some of Google’s actions. In other words, I see Google occasionally violating the motto with at least three sets of policies that–intentionally or not–certainly do evil.
On its <a href=”http://www.google.com/corporate/tenthings.html”>corporate information page, Google defines what <em>it</em> means by “don’t be evil”</a>:
<blockquote>* We don’t allow ads to be displayed on our results pages unless they are relevant where they are shown. And we firmly believe that ads can provide useful information if, and only if, they are relevant to what you wish to find – so it’s possible that certain searches won’t lead to any ads at all.
* We believe that advertising can be effective without being flashy. We don’t accept pop-up advertising, which interferes with your ability to see the content you’ve requested. We’ve found that text ads that are relevant to the person reading them draw much higher clickthrough rates than ads appearing randomly. Any advertiser, whether small or large, can take advantage of this highly targeted medium.
* Advertising on Google is always clearly identified as a “Sponsored Link,” so it does not compromise the integrity of our search results. We never manipulate rankings to put our partners higher in our search results and no one can buy better PageRank. Our users trust our objectivity and no short-term gain could ever justify breaching that trust.</blockquote>
These are good, as far as they go. And Google has done a whole lot of other things right—starting with creating a fabulous user experience. Anyone who remembers the awful interfaces, slow and inaccurate search results, and general clumsiness of pre-Google search tools is grateful for Google’s existence. I got on the Internet in 1994, and I certainly count myself among those who appreciate what Google did for search. The AdWords/AdSense program is another example of reinventing the paradigm and doing it a good bit better, and some of the newer modules also make things easier for anyone doing research. Google’s real mission seems to be to make the world’s body of knowledge accessible on line, in seconds. In many ways, that’s a worthy goal. But on ethics grounds, Google has had some real shortcomings.
<li>First, Google’s quest to index everything indexable runs up against <a href=”http://www.google.com/search?q=google+privacy+concerns&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&aq=t&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&client=firefox-a”>problems both on privacy </a>and <a href=”https://nwu.org/national-writers-union-files-brief-opposing-google-books-settlement”>intellectual property protection</a> grounds.
</li><li>Second, Google has cooperated with repressive governments (notably China) in <a href=”http://www.google.com/search?q=google+china+censorship&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&aq=t&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&client=firefox-a”>censoring content</a> (though at least I couldn’t find a record of it turning over records about activists, unlike <a href=”http://www.highposition.net/article/google-and-the-china-problem/456679″>Yahoo, which bears responsibility for the ten-year jail term </a>handed to a prominent blogger after Yahoo gave the Chinese government).
</li><li>Third, and the immediate spark of this post (which has been brewing for over a week), is my deep concern about Google’s Sidewiki.</li>Sidewiki, as I understand it, allows users who have the Google Toolbar installed to comment, unmoderated, in an area that appears on the left side of the webpage–<em>but those comments are only visible to others who have the Toolbar installed!</em> Among the many evils this can lead to: spamming, blocking site owners’ sources of revenue (or even replacing them with links that benefit those commenting), loss of control over one’s own website, black hat search technique, slander of site owners or contributors, unethical business practices such as deceptive advertising, and even something as simple as wrecking the aesthetic and content integrity of a carefully designed website…all in a hijacked section of the page that may not even be visible to the site owner, if he/she doesn’t happen to install the toolbar.
I was alerted to the Sidewiki problem through two recent blogs by Paul Myers on Talkbiz. <a href=”http://talkbiz.com/blog/google-steals-the-web/#more-56″>The first discusses the software and its vast potential for misuse.</a> And the <a href=”http://talkbiz.com/blog/what-to-do-about-sidewiki/”>second offers site owners some possible protection</a>, as well as a suggestion to Google about how to enable the useful parts of the feature without compromising site integrity or forcing site owners to agree to onerous privacy terms:
<blockquote>When someone wishes to read comments or discussion about a site they’re visiting, enable them to open a separate browser tab, program window or other display option that shows previous comments and allows them to add their own.
This is not a technically difficult change to the program, certainly. It is consistent with the goal of enabling broader visitor interaction in a time- and context-appropriate fashion.
And it respects the rights of site owners.</blockquote>
Google can’t hep being aware of these controversies. Sop how can it claim to abide by “don’t be evil”?