As one of the most radical and forward-thinking companies we’ve seen since the turn of the century, Google has consistently defied expectations and continued to be beacon of innovation. Few multinational corporations in recent memory have changed the world to such an extent. It’s basically the IBM of the 21st century in many ways. Most striking of all is their founding motto, codified during their 2004 IPO as “Don’t be evil.” In short, it meant that Google would strive to be a different kind of company that would avoid the missteps of tech giants that had come before it.
But what does “Don’t be evil” really mean? Is it just PR hyperbole or does Google actually follow through on its pledge? Lately, pretty much anyone who works in the search industry and regular users alike have questioned Google’s commitment to its famous credo based on recent business decisions. As with any public facing company, if you want to be critical you have plenty of material to work with when making the case that Mountain View has strayed from its original altruistic vision. After all, you don’t get to be as big as Google without stepping on a few toes and ruffling a few feathers. Almost a decade after Google went public, it’s worth taking a timeout to reflect on its track record.
The Company Line
Essentially, “Don’t Be Evil” was a pledge to avoid abusing the trust of its online users. Sources differ as to whether it was software engineer Paul Buchheit or early Googler Amit Patel that coined the phrase. Regardless, it eventually found its way into Google’s S-1 prospectus in ’04. The original wording was as follows: “Don’t be evil. We believe strongly that in the long term, we will be better served — as shareholders and in all other ways — by a company that does good things for the world even if we forgo some short term gains.”
This sentiment is hardly a new one. There’s a long and storied history of businesses going out of their way to be good corporate citizens in the interests of establishing good will. Quaker business practices from the 1800s and earlier stress the importance of putting people above profits. Not only is it a moral way of doing business, it also ensures that consumers ultimately trust the firms they patronize. In a truly free market, it’s the only way for a successful company to operate and thrive. That’s all well and good, but some argue that Google has trampled its core founding principle in numerous ways over the years.
Privacy at Home and Abroad
To many in the US and other major markets, the biggest cause for concern as far as Google business practices are concerned boils down to privacy. One particular intrusion that immediately springs to mind is Google’s Street View fiasco. The pulling of data from private Wi-Fi networks didn’t earn them any points in the public eye. Minor Google Docs data leaks didn’t help either. Furthermore, many take issue with Gmail, particularly with the latest admission that Gmail users shouldn’t expect privacy.
Google’s moves to reduce online anonymity are equally worrisome, as their efforts to get people to display their real names on Google+ and YouTube continue to annoy everyday users. While the likes of former CEO Eric Schmidt and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg seem to feel otherwise, a lot of regular web users prize the ability to mask their identities on the web. While Google allows people to opt out of publicly identifying themselves in most cases, their indifference to the wishes of the masses doesn’t bode well for the future. After all, anonymity on the web can ultimately be a matter of life or death in certain scenarios.
Citizens in countries with oppressive regimes require secure online communications to avoid political repercussions. Google’s handling of human rights concerns in particular drew a lot of flak when dealing with the Chinese government. A few years ago, Google decided to withdraw from the Chinese market due to privacy concerns and the government’s insistence that Google cough up user data. When push came to shove, Google blinked, though they gave an understandable explanation for their actions. The issue of free speech and Google’s tracking of communications has even sparked conspiracy theories regarding the ties between the CIA’s In-Q-Tel and Mountain View.
SEO, SERPs & the Ad Game
On the Search Engine Optimisation front of Google’s e-commerce empire, frequent charges of unfairness have been levelled at the company on an annual basis. The Panda and Penguin updates were prime examples of how Google’s ranking algorithms can selectively harm the little guy. The updates in question seemed to slam only certain content farms and left other egregious offenders relatively unscathed. More importantly, they also heavily impacted smaller sites that often struggle to recover from such hits. I could quite easily name a handful of small business owners who find Google’s “Don’t be evil” motto to be disingenuous based on their frequently confusing, and changing, rules.
When it comes to advertising, Google have managed to annoy users and partners alike over the years. Advertisers are integral to Google’s revenue, as they’re responsible for the majority of the company’s profits. Changing the face of the SERPs to include more paid Google Shopping results has been infamously unpopular. Basically, it’s now harder for those without deep pockets to compete. Whether this is deliberately selfish or merely the result of a changing marketplace is a really matter of opinion. In many ways, including Google Shopping results in the organic SERPs arguably makes for a better overall search experience.
We also now have ‘GoogleGate’ – the Adwords account manager scandal that, through an accidental voicemail left by a business owners’ Google Account Manager, seems to prove that they’re incentivised on up-selling PPC products to their customers. Should an Account Manager be there to help you or sell to you? An argument could be made either way, and the answer is probably ‘both’, but the real issue here is transparency.
PR Wars and Opaque Corporate Alliances
Google’s main competitors like Microsoft and Apple go out of their way to paint the company as being two-faced when it comes to its official anti-evil stance. Redmond in particular no doubt takes satisfaction in seeing Google face many of the same anti-competitive accusations that it encountered in the 90s. Anything that helps Microsoft stake a major claim in web search would be a boon. On the other hand, Apple is already a direct competitor in the services and mobile hardware arenas. Steve Jobs famously called Google’s “Don’t be evil” mantra “bullshit” during his tenure as Apple CEO. More than any other company, Apple has everything to gain by Google’s good name taking a hit.
Even collaborators in the Android sphere have some misgivings over Google’s actions. One of the most glaring indictments against Google and its involvement in the Open Handset Alliance came from Alibaba CTO Wang Jian, who accused Google of inhibiting mobile competition. Emerging web and mobile upstarts are starting to question Google’s commitment to a free and unfettered marketplace where innovation comes first. They may have a point, though the obtuse world of intellectual property and the all-out tech battle that patent conflicts have spawned make it difficult to lay all blame solely at Google’s feet.
Patents, Copyrights & the FTC Inquiry
Another contemporary cause for concern vis-à-vis Google’s theoretical opposition to evil is the two-year investigation by the FTC over Google’s alleged improprieties. While the FTC ultimately found Google innocent of nearly all charges, Mountain View agreed to license so-called “standard-essential” patents to competing companies under liberal FRAND (fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory) terms. Despite the FTC’s accusations that Google “deliberately impeded and delayed” its investigation, the company emerged more or less unscathed. It’s that last bit that has many worried. If those allegations are true, it points to a disturbing change in Google’s ethical stance.
The FTC anti-trust inquiry was in many ways the capstone to an expansive legal war that’s been raging for years. To the average electronics consumer, the most important legal struggles involve Android and Apple’s iOS. While Apple declined to directly attack Google, they’ve been going after key Android partners like Samsung for copying many aspects of their mobile operating system and their hardware. The real problem here is that Apple and Google have shelled out more money on acquiring intellectual property and legal representation than they have on actual R&D lately. That’s bad for both companies, but it’s worse for end users and consumers.
Speaking of intellectual property rights, there’s also the issues raised by Google Books and Google Video. While Google argues that these projects are only aimed at freeing information, many publishers and content creators maintain that they’re a direct violation of their rights as copyright holders. On the one hand, it’s easy to support Google’s seemingly benign intentions. On the other, it’s equally difficult not to identify with authors, intellectuals and artists who resent having their work given away in the name of openness on the web. Don’t expect that debate to be resolved any time soon. Regardless, it’s yet another example of the dual nature that Google’s actions often exhibit.
Google’s Corporate Conduct: It’s All Relative
Those who accuse Google of violating its own “Don’t be evil” mantra imply at best that making money is a bad thing. At worst, they allege that Google uses its massive share of the web search market and its fat bank accounts to negatively tilt the playing field in their favour. What few realise is that the company is more or less doing exactly what any other company in its shoes would do. As such, there’s nothing particularly evil about what they’ve done in the past or what they plan on doing in the future.
As for its use of tax shelters like Bermuda, one could easily point the finger at Apple in much the same way. Virtually every major tech corporation uses the complexities of international tax laws to ensure that they can funnel as much money back into the company and return a decent portion to shareholders. These practices speak volumes more about the corporate tax codes of the United States than they do about American companies doing what they have to in order to remain competitive. Popular bands like U2 and the Rolling Stones have done the exact same thing with far less outcry from the media.
Good with the Bad
In the real world, Google as a company isn’t so different from the average person. Regardless of any altruistic or high-minded intentions, it’s still forced to make compromises to achieve the best results for itself and for others. It’s easy to cast judgment on Google for specific decisions it has made, but it’s a lot harder to come up with alternative courses of action that would be preferable. In the grand scheme of things, Google ranks far lower on the Evil Scale than corporate entities like BP, Union Carbide and Monsanto. They’re committed to using green energy, they haven’t spilled thousands of barrels of oil into the ocean and thus far they’ve never poisoned an entire city without owning up to it.
In addition, you have to weigh the pros and cons of Google’s missteps versus the very real contributions they’ve made in many areas. From Project Glass to self-driving cars, the company has expanded beyond their original web search wheelhouse to diversify and refine their efforts for the good of the company and humanity as a whole. They’ve even stepped into the biotechnology realm via 23andme, a DNA sequencing firm that could significantly improve health and quality of life for billions around the planet. Lastly, they’ve made incredibly accurate web search omnipresent and free for anyone with a Wi-Fi connection.
Long Story Short
It’s easy to second-guess the actions of a major corporation looking from the outside in. It’s a lot tougher to create a company from scratch that changes how we see the world and interact with each other in under a decade. The next time you criticise Google for whatever perceived infraction they’ve committed, take a moment to remember how much the company has contributed to your personal and professional life. And if you don’t like the way they operate, you can always defect to Bing and Apple Maps!
Any major company that operates at Google’s level will inevitably have to make sacrifices. Idealism is great and it’s something that we should all hold on to no matter how old, jaded or world-weary we get. But pragmatism is what pays the bills and keeps the wheels of progress moving. Google reached the pinnacle of the tech industry by maintaining a high level of innovation and beating their competitors on price (e.g. free) and quality of service every time. The company is by no means perfect, but it’s hardly the Snidely Whiplash of the corporate world as some would have you believe.