Debate: Does Google Violate its “Don’t Be Evil” Motto?

by on November 17, 2008 · 28 comments

Tomorrow evening, I’ll be participating in an IQ2US debate arguing against the proposition that “Google violates its ‘don’t be evil’ motto.” The venue is Caspary Auditorium at The Rockefeller University, 1230 York Avenue at 66th Street, in New York City.

Jeff Jarvis, Esther Dyson and I will be debating Harry Lewis of Harvard, Randall Picker of the University of Chicago Law School, and Siva Vaidhyanathan from the University of Virginia. Jarvis’ blog post on the subject has gotten some interesting discussion.

As with any company, one can complain about the details of how Google does business. I think I call it like I see it with respect to Google, having derided their gaming of the regulatory system in the 700 MHz auction and lauding their generally good corporate citizenship on privacy.

You have to drain the word “evil” of meaning to apply it to Google. But even in the casual, slightly anti-corporate sense that the founders probably meant it, Google isn’t evil.

Though publishers and holders of copyrights protest (often from ignorance of the modern media landscape), Google makes their material more available, more useful, and more profitable.

Owners of trademarks may object, but Google AdWords brings new products and better prices to consumers.

Surely Google should avoid censorship on behalf of the Chinese government, but exiting China would abandon the Chinese people to government-approved information sources only.

Google Earth, Maps, Street View, and basic search challenge privacy, but Google has made itself a model corporate citizen by working to educate users, by making its products transparent, and by openly resisting government subpoenas.

Some say Google’s search monopoly makes it the most powerful company on earth, but it’s always one misstep (and one click) away from handing its customer base to a challenger.

Disruptive technologies and businesses always make life uncomfortable for the old guard. These complainers should be ignored. Google earns a rightful profit as it makes people around the world more aware, educated, and informed. Evil? Hardly.

Discuss.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    The Android phone has some evil properties. You can't activate it without a Gmail account, and while it has a reader for regular email, it's very weak so the pressure is on to use privacy-robbing Gmail.

    There's no turn-by-turn GPS navigator for the G1, despite the fact that one was been demo'ed that uses Google maps and the built-in GPS receiver. The license for Gmaps specifically forbids its use by a real-time GPS application.

    Google's complete and total capture of the FCC – they're 3 for 3 on major issues right now – is breathtaking.

    Evil is banal, something that happens while we're thinking about other things. In that sense, well, the evidence is pretty clear.

  • Ryan Radia

    You do make several valid criticisms of the Android phone, but they aren't especially compelling reasons why we should conclude that Google is evil. Google yearns for information about us in order to more effectively create wealth by connecting buyers and sellers of goods and services. Besides, many people don't seem to mind entering in their Gmail account on their Android phone, assuming at least some of those who've purchased the HTC G1 are aware of what the activation process entails.

    And Google's success in convincing the FCC to embrace forced openness doesn't really make Google any worse (or better) than most other large tech companies out there. It's just that Google has been skilfully gaming the regulatory system as of late. Don't hate the playa; hate the game.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    Ryan, you sound like one of those defense attorneys who argue that their client murdered his neighbor because he's a “victim of society.” Sure, the regulatory game encourages big companies to be players, and they all are. So the question we have to ask about them isn't whether they play, or even how successful they are, it's how their agendas and programs affect the rest of us.

    The program that Google is pursuing in the regulatory realm has to be judged (at least in part) according to its effects on the connectivity business and the content business, and I submit that such an analysis would show that Google is actually harming the very Internet infrastructure they pretend to protect. The “openness mandate” tends to reduce the Internet from a genuinely multi-service platform supporting a diverse set of uses into one where video streaming and web surfing are the only viable applications. The reason for this is that the other uses – mainly real-time communications of various kinds – depend on carriers discriminating among streams and boosting the priority of some while lowering the priority of others.

    And Google's insistence on the use of the White Spaces as an unlicensed and lightly-regulated commons means they're destined to become overloaded and dysfunctional at some point. Of course, these developments will ultimately harm Google, but long after the numbers are in for the current quarter and the current year.

    So there's a disconnect between the Google interest and the public interest, and a disconnect between Google's short-term and long-term interest. Their pursuit of short-term interest and obliviousness to the larger interests marks them as evil in my book.

    I doubt anybody will make these points in the debate tomorrow.

  • Ryan Radia

    Ryan, you sound like one of those defense attorneys who argue that their client murdered his neighbor because he's a “victim of society.” Sure, the regulatory game encourages big companies to be players, and they all are. So the question we have to ask about them isn't whether they play, or even how successful they are, it's how their agendas and programs affect the rest of us.

    Perhaps you’re right, but at least in this case, what Google is doing (regulatory gaming) is the norm, rather than the exception (as in murder). And I don’t mean to say we should completely excuse firms that advocate harmful policies; rather, we should focus the brunt of our criticism on the regulatory agencies which have so much authority that profit-maximizing firms have little choice but to hire lobbyists lest they lose out to more influential competitors.

    The program that Google is pursuing in the regulatory realm has to be judged (at least in part) according to its effects on the connectivity business and the content business, and I submit that such an analysis would show that Google is actually harming the very Internet infrastructure they pretend to protect. The “openness mandate” tends to reduce the Internet from a genuinely multi-service platform supporting a diverse set of uses into one where video streaming and web surfing are the only viable applications. The reason for this is that the other uses – mainly real-time communications of various kinds – depend on carriers discriminating among streams and boosting the priority of some while lowering the priority of others.

    I’m strongly opposed to forced openness in nearly all cases, but I’m not sure if Google is actually against the prioritization of time-sensitive data streams if conducted in an open manner without endpoint-based discrimination. Still, Google has got it wrong on net neutrality and I won’t hesitate to say it.

    And Google's insistence on the use of the White Spaces as an unlicensed and lightly-regulated commons means they're destined to become overloaded and dysfunctional at some point. Of course, these developments will ultimately harm Google, but long after the numbers are in for the current quarter and the current year.

    Again, you are right that the white spaces ruling represents a wrongheaded approach toward spectrum allocation, but Google was far from alone in pushing for the FCC to allow unlicensed use of white spaces. Microsoft and Dell were big proponents of white space devices as well.

    So there's a disconnect between the Google interest and the public interest, and a disconnect between Google's short-term and long-term interest. Their pursuit of short-term interest and obliviousness to the larger interests marks them as evil in my book.

    I don’t have the insight into Google’s long-term plans to conclude that their victories in DC are contrary to their own long-term interest, though I do agree with you that, in some cases, Google’s policy agenda isn’t aligned with the public interest. But this makes Google no worse than countless other firms that throw money around in DC with hopes of achieving a favorable regulatory atmosphere. Name any big company, and I bet you can come up with an example of that company calling for a harmful policy at some point or another.

    Large firms advocating policies that benefit their bottom line without regard to the public interest is really nothing new. Attempts to game the system have been commonplace in Washington for decades, and chances are they won’t disappear anywhere soon, despite the best efforts of those of us who oppose regulatory power in general.

  • bradencox

    Google isn't evil per se, but it sure has an evil bent to it in a couple of ways: 1) the 700 MHz gaming that Jim mentioned. While Google didn't act against the rules, it sure did game them in favor of its ad-based business model. And the FCC allowed Google to assert a minimum bid with which the agency established as a minimum, increasing entry costs to competitors. 2) Did Google really intend to do the deal with Yahoo, or was it just trying to block a Microsoft acquisition? Makes you wonder….

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    I think you're changing the question. So what if everybody does it? If it's evil, it's evil.

  • MikeRT

    I'm not sure that Google is often evil so much as they are short-sighted. Their biggest problem is their tendency to allow far-left employees to insert their bias into places where it has no business. Google management needs to realize that such things don't do them any good, and can be leveraged as a competitive advantage by other search engines.

  • MichaelZimmer

    “Surely Google should avoid censorship on behalf of the Chinese government, but exiting China would abandon the Chinese people to government-approved information sources only.”

    Doesn't Google's complicity with China's censorship also “abandon the Chinese people to government-approved information sources only”? If China's censorship is problematic, why isn't Google's facilitation of that censorship also problematic?

    “Google Earth, Maps, Street View, and basic search challenge privacy, but Google has made itself a model corporate citizen by working to educate users, by making its products transparent, and by openly resisting government subpoenas.”

    Only under duress did Google agree to blur out identifiable faces/license plates on Street View. Only under duress did Google (finally) agree to add a link to its privacy policy on its homepage. Only under duress did Google agree to limit the expiration date of its cookie. I hardly see such actions as those of a “model corporate citizen”.

  • http://www.cato.org/people/jim-harper Jim Harper

    Thanks, MZ, for some fair criticisms of my post.

    I think the Chinese people are better off with Google in there slow-walking their compliance with the Chinese authorities. When I last spent time with this issue, Google was indicating it to Chinese searchers when their results had been censored, which is crucial meta-information that a Baidu would not provide. So, no, being there and complying with censorship law is not the same as not being there.

    Chinese censorship is problematic (at least), but the focus should be on the government with its wrongful rules rather than the company that complies with local law. If a building code requires using highly flammable materials and people die in a fire, you blame the building code, not the contractor that complied with the code.

    “Model corporate citizen” may have been a bit generous. Perhaps they're a “model” for all the companies that are worse, as opposed to a model of perfection.

    I'm not sure any of these changes occurred under pressure rising to the level of “duress.” When a legitimate concern has been raised, Google has fairly promptly and easily agreed to privacy-protecting changes. (The whole thing about having a privacy policy linked from its home page was a canard, in my opinion, btw.)

  • http://www.blurringborders.com kdonovan11

    If you haven't seen it already, check out Nart's summary and research of different firms' approaches to censorship transparency: http://www.nartv.org/2008/06/26/perspectives-on

    Google did, in fact, induce more openness about the government policy.

  • Ryan Radia

    Like any corporation, Google exists to deliver value to its shareholders. Advancing the 'public interest' is not, and should not, be the goal of any firm that operates in a competitive marketplace. Google believes that its regulatory agenda will maximize its ability to generate shareholder value, and so Google throws money around in DC in attempt to influence the FCC and Congress.

    I do believe that the long-term goal of fighting government intervention in the economy is a worthy one, and perhaps even in the best interest of a corporation with a long-term focus. But I do not know of very many large companies that are willing to resoundingly abandon the tactics of rent-seeking and instead embrace an open marketplace where success can be achieved only via innovation, rather than lobbying prowess.

    There will always be some company that's on a regulatory winning streak. Today it is Google; tomorrow, it's anybody's guess. The regulatory interventionism that you and I abhor is rooted not in corporations, but in the government itself. Take away the ability of regulatory agencies to make judgment calls on how the airwaves are used, and opportunities for rent-seeking dissipate (at least as far as spectrum is concerned).

    We should certainly criticize companies when they advocate bad policies, but branding firms like Google as “evil” only fuels the flames of state intervention that threaten the future of online content.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    OK, that's all true. But why are we talking about Google and evil? It's because they've chosen to hold themselves out as different from other corporations, especially Microsoft. The subtext of “Don't be Evil” is “Don't be like Microsoft, the Evil Empire.” And I think you'd agree that according to that definition of corporate behavior, there's no difference. If anything, Google is better at Microsoft's game than Microsoft itself.

    One thing I've always admired about Microsoft is their lack of pretense. At a meeting I had at Microsoft once, when my colleague complained about the price of MS-DOS licenses the MS product manager simply replied “there's no steeple on this building, is there?” Honesty is always refreshing.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    For the record, the supporters of “Google violates its 'Don't be Evil' motto swept the floor with the Google apologists, even with Googleboy Larry Lessig in the audience. See the transcript:
    http://www.intelligencesquaredus.org/Transcript

    Nonetheless, it appears that the contestants had a good time.

  • http://kat-collins.blogspot.com/ Kat

    A really interesting debate. I have to admit I'm against the motion. I have been discussing it with Siva Vaidhyanathan at http://kat-collins.blogspot.com/

  • http://kat-collins.blogspot.com/ Kat

    A really interesting debate. I have to admit I'm against the motion. I have been discussing it with Siva Vaidhyanathan at http://kat-collins.blogspot.com/

  • http://kat-collins.blogspot.com/ Kat

    A really interesting debate. I have to admit I'm against the motion. I have been discussing it with Siva Vaidhyanathan at http://kat-collins.blogspot.com/

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