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.,,, 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.