Posts about evil

What Google should do

I am astounded and delighted at the news that Google is no longer comfortable censoring search results at the call of the Chinese government and is threatening to pull out of the market. Google said it discovered cyberattacks and surveillance aimed at cracking the mail accounts of Chinese supporters of human rights. Said Google exec David Drummond on the company blog:

These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered–combined with the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web–have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China. We have decided we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all. We recognize that this may well mean having to shut down Google.cn, and potentially our offices in China.

I know some will say that Google wasn’t doing that well in China anyway (it controls 31% of the market); they’ll ascribe cynical motives. But I say: Name one other company that finally said “enough!” and put ethic, morals, and company standards over its lust for the Chinese market. Not Yahoo. Not Cisco. Not Nokia. Not Siemens. Not The New York Times Company. Google has.

Here’s what I said in What Would Google Do? about China:

Google has censored search results in China, arguing that it is better to bring a hampered internet there than no internet at all. I don’t agree and believe that Google has more power than it knows to pressure countries around the world to respect openness and free speech. Google, like Yahoo, has handed over information to governments—Google in India, Yahoo in China—that led to users being arrested simply for what they said. As an American and a First Amendment absolutist, I’d call that evil.

Here’s what I said in a talk at Google’s offices in Washington. (Thanks to commenters, the time code for the start of the topic is 23:38.)

Note that even Google’s cofounder, Sergey Brin, has waffled if not agonized over the company’s China policy.

I can well be accused of being a Google fanboy; I wrote the book. But I have been consistent in my criticism of Google’s actions in China. And so now I have not choice but to become even more of a fanboy. I applaud Google for finally standing up to the Chinese dictatorship and for free speech.

Will the Chinese people revolt at losing Google? We can only hope. Will other companies now have to hesitate before doing the dictators’ bidding? We can only hope. Will Google be punished by Wall Street? It probably will. But as I’ve argued, we should hope that Google’s pledge, Don’t be evil, will one day be chiseled over the doors of Wall Street.

Google has thrown the gauntlet down in favor of freedom. What Should Google Do? This is what it should do.

: MORE: Said Jonathan Zittrain of Harvard’s Berkman Center: “In a world in which we are so used to public relations massaging of messages, this stands out as a direct declaration. It’s amazing.”

: Says Reuters: “The world’s dominant search firm may be hoping other search and e-mail leaders, both global and domestic, will rally around it in calling for China to lighten a heavy-handed approach to the Internet that includes frequent censorship and allegations of government-backed hacking.”

: YET MORE: Zeit Online calls Google a quasi-state that is willing to stand up to China where the U.S. and Germany are not. But it also warns that Google’s interests are not what they seem. (In German.)

: A view of the PR strategy:

Google has taken the China corporate communications playbook, wrapped it in oily rags, doused it in gasoline and dropped a lit match on it. In China, foreign companies tend to be deferential to the authorities to the point of obsequiousness, in a way that you would almost certainly never encounter in the United States or Europe. . . . In this situation Google has undertaken a bet-the-farm confrontational communications approach in China. They will not have made this decision lightly. Dressed up in the polite language above is what is essentially an ultimatum: Allow us to present uncensored search results to our Chinese users or we’ll walk.

: Rebecca MacKinnon, who knows whereof she speaks on matters China and internet, says Google is doing the right thing.

: James Fallows, who also knows, says this:

And if a major U.S. company — indeed, Google has been ranked the #1 brand in the world — has concluded that, in effect, it must break diplomatic relations with China because its policies are too repressive and intrusive to make peace with, that is a significant judgment. . . . But its government is on a path at the moment that courts resistance around the world. To me, that is what Google’s decision signifies.

: Siva Vaidhyanathan responds to me here. There’s a chicken v. egg debate about what’s leading this: the attacks or the censorship. I agree that the censorship is a tool in this power struggle; it clearly was not the catalyst or it could have been four years ago. But I think it’s also evident –see Sergey Brin four years ago — that Google, despite its public pronouncements about a crippled internet being better than no internet, struggled internally with its China policy. Slapping China over censorship is now a way to bring make the fight about attacks about China. Pick your sin — attacks, censorship (or the death penalty or repression of dissent or dangerous and fatal products) — somebody — Google — finally had the balls to make China the issue. I’ve sat in WEF meeting where some have shushed me and others for daring to criticize China: it’s a Chinese thing; you wouldn’t understand. Well, bullshit, it’s a human thing; it’s about rights (pick yours).

: See my post above on the rise of the interest-state.

Defending Google, the video

Here’s video of my presentation at the NPR Intelligence Squared debate on whether Google violates its “don’t be evil” motto:

I am responding to Siva Vaidhyanathan’s inspired recitation of Google’s execution of the seven deadly sins; I answered with eight virtues. More videos are here. Here’s a transcript. The audio will be up soon.

Saul Hansell of the Times Bits Blog covered the debate and then followed up with Google CEO Eric Schmidt making the point I made in the start of my talk, explaining the don’t-be-evil vow to the editorial board of The New York Times (you’re welcome from that straight line). Schmidt said: “‘Don’t be evil’ is an invitation to debate. It means we will fight over what it means.”

Defending Google

Tuesday night, I’m joining in an NPR Intelligence Squared debate – Oxford format – on the motion, Google violates its “don’t be evil” motto. I’m speaking against – surprise, surprise. Esther Dyson and and Jim Harper of CATO are on my side; on the other are Siva Vaidhyanathan of the University of Virginia (who’s also writing a book on Google), Randal C. Picker of the University of Chicago, and Harry Lewis of Harvard. Gulp. (The debate will be aired later. They’re charging $40 for tickets to the live event.)

Here are draft notes on my opening. I’m writing it out but will treat this more as an outline. As always, I would be grateful for your thoughts.

My opponents have a high bar to get over. Google should be presumed virtuous until proven evil. Just because it could be evil does not mean it is. Just being big and powerful does not make it evil. In this country, we tend to value success until one becomes too successful, and then we become suspicious. How much success is too much? That is our problem, not Google’s. No, my opponents must bring the evidence of Google’s misdeeds to prove their case. I don’t envy them.

I grant that Google could be better.

* In China and in other nations where free speech is attacked, Google should use its power and influence – which are greater than even it seems to know – to refuse to issue censored search results. I wonder whether the risk of life without Google could lead to revolution. But in its defense, Google argues that a hampered internet is better for the Chinese than no internet at all.

* I also wish that Google were more transparent about the business arrangement in its ad networks. Google demands transparency from the rest of us – if we want Googlejuice – but it is too often opaque itself. But opaqueness has long been standard procedure in business.

Evil? No.

Leavening the impression of – or fear of – evil is Google’s virtue. Google does good. Our world is a better place because of Google. Consider:

* Google has opened up the world’s digital knowledge to everyone. We can answer any question, satisfy any curiosity, fix any error of fact in the blink of an eye. I wanted to know just how fast that is, so I asked Google how fast an eye blinks and in .3 seconds it told me that a blink takes .3 seconds.

* Google respects the wisdom of the crowd – that is the essence of the PageRank that determines which search results are most relevant. Google also enables us to recapture our wisdom, as it does with its analysis of flu trends based on our searches for related words.

* Google connects people. Young people today will never lose touch and I hope that will lead to better friendships and better behavior.

* Google’s ads are helping to support the creation of the next generation of content. I made $4,500 in Google ads on my blog, Buzzmachine, last year. Granted, I shouldn’t have quit my day job but Google made my blog profitable.

* Edward Roussel, digital head of the Telegraph in London, has argued that declining newspapers should consider handing over the work of technology, distribution, and ad sales to Google so they could become efficient and profitable and do what they do best: journalism.

* Google created platforms on which others can create products, companies, jobs, value, and wealth. About.com, Platial.com, Outside.in, EveryBlock.com exist only because Google made them possible. With Google’s ads, maps, hosting, services, and promotion, new creations bloom.

* Google shows us the way to a new economy that will be built out of the wreckage of the financial crisis. No longer will companies grow to critical mass by borrowing huge amounts of capital to make huge acquisitions. In the Google age, they will grow by creating networks on platforms. We have much to learn from Google’s ways.

One might say that its vow not to do evil is the height of hubris. Google is undeniably arrogant. But its executives say the evil motto is valuable inside the company because it allows any employee to question any decision. It’s not a bad rule. Indeed, I wish Google’s covenant had been chiseled over many a door on Wall Street. If only, in the poisoned process that led to the financial crisis, enough people had asked whether seeking and issuing toxic mortgages and making and selling toxic assets were evil—instead of someone else’s problem—I wonder whether we’d have reached this nadir.

As we try to understand and navigate a new world built on links, connectedness, networks, openness, transparency, publicness, trust, generosity, efficiency, niches, platforms, speed, and abundance, we would do well to ask ourselves, what would Google do? Google is not evil. Google is an example to us all.

What PR won’t fix

No amount of PR and no number of company blogs can make a bad company look good — or smart. Wal-Mart is the poster pig for that lipstick. Again and again, they prove themselves to be mean, greedy, and stupid. Again and again, they and their PR people are forced to apologize. And it’s clear: They never learn. The culture remains venal. Management remains blind to the fact that their moral myopia is bad for the brand and bad for business. Even the PR company, Edelman, fails to realize that this is bringing them down — who’d want to trust them after they keep throwing themselves on swords for Wal-Mart and who’d want to hire them given Wal-Mart’s horrid reputation — and they’d be better off resigning the account, no matter what it’s worth. Greed is usually such a simplistic explanation for bad behavior but in this case, it explains everything. This wouldn’t be so incredibly apparent if it didn’t keep happening over and over and over again.

The latest of the company’s moral lapses is the story of Debbie Shank, a former employee who was hit by a truck, is severely brain-damaged, and who won a lawsuit to help pay for her very expensive care. Wal-Mart wanted a piece of that suit.

Wal-Mart’s health care plan lets the retail giant recoup the cost of its expenses if an employee collects damages in a lawsuit. And Wal-Mart set out to do just that after Shank and her husband, Jim, won $1 million after suing the trucking company involved in the wreck. After legal fees, the couple received $417,000.

Wal-Mart sued the Shanks to recoup $470,000 it paid for her medical care. However, a court ruled that the company could only recoup about $275,000 — the amount that was left in a trust fund for her care.

Who cares what the clause says? The story went on TV and it inspires both heartbreak and rage (much of it in blogs). It’s obvious that Wal-Mart has no moral compass and not even a self-interested sense of priorities given its PR problems, especially over its health care for employees.

People make fun of Google’s righteous vow not to be evil. It’s practically a self-parody. And it’s a shame that any institution should think that it needs to make such a promise; shouldn’t it be presumed?

But imagine if Google took over Wal-Mart and made that one change, posting a sign in every store and every office: Don’t be evil. Imagine if that became the basis of firings and hirings: out with the bad air, in with the good air. Could the culture of this company possibly be reformed? Could they ever see that being evil to employees and customers is bad business? Could they ever train employees to think differently, to factor decency into their decisions? Or has it descended too far into hell?

The contrast between Wal-Mart and Google illuminates Google’s vow in a new light. It doesn’t look so silly to promise not to be evil when you watch the business of an evil company.

: LATER: I meant to add this: Wal-Mart spends many, many times as much on PR with Edelman as it was going after from the poor, brain-damaged accident victim and her family. Even from a self-interested, practical, sensible perspective, they should have seen that this would be damaging — so much so that Edelman would have been better paying the fee itself. This also indicates bad management judgment at Wal-Mart.