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.

  • An example on the value of high aspirations — the U.S. founding was horribly flawed by slavery. That reality was unavoidable for the country to be founded at all.

    However, the high aspirations enshrined in the constitution and the declaration are what built the movement to destroy slavery and led so many to lay down their lives.

    Was the United States evil? I don’t think so. All good institutions run by humans will fail to live up to their high aspirations. Google is the same way, failing to live up to its aspirations in some cases, doesn’t make it evil, just means it is run by unavoidably flawed people in an unavoidably flawed global society.

    High aspirations mean Google seeks to make those flaws smaller over time. An evil institution wouldn’t care.

  • Socraton

    With great power comes great responsibility.

    If Peter Parker never used his powers, then yes, he would be evil.

  • Socraton,
    Love that. Thanks.

  • The Admiral

    What corporation actually *IS* evil? I mean really? Its a term that gets bandied around by people as a political signpost – i.e. “I am broadly skeptical of the benefits of large corporations”. But in debasing its coinage, the term has lost any real meaning. Maybe you should see if there have been any truly evil corporations and see how Google stacks up against them.

  • Admiral,

    A better debate, perhaps. Was Enron evil? Are the Chinese companies that are poisoning children evil? I’d say yes and I’d say we could come up with more examples. But that contrast only bolsters your point – that to argue that Google is evil only debases the coinage. Agree.

  • How about Google’s vast amount of individual data collection and its consequent targeted marketing? I find it a little ironic that folks from Cato — who would never countenance the government’s involvement in this level of surveillance– would be defending it here.

    I agree, though, with the other posters who find the use of the word evil here to be a little silly. I’m sure its being done for debate marketing purposes. Nevertheless, this conversation is worth having.

  • Collecting data for more relevant search results, content, and advertising is fine with me. I see nothing evil in it. It’s not surveillance. It’s intelligence. The privacy has become too much of a bugaboo.

  • Cemlyn

    Interesting stuff. Goof luck with the talk. I’ve actually been blogging about google recently. have a look:

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  • The Admiral

    Thinking further on this and on the other hand… Google coined the motto and clearly imbued it with their own unspecified meaning – a meaning that is different to and less than the accepted meaning of “evil”. Therefore it is a category error to hold them to account to the standard meaning. We should hold them to account to this…newer…meaning – whatever it is. The lack of specificity is dangerous for Google as it means that “evil” becomes a completely elastic term and can stretch to whatever issue a critic chooses.

    If anything, it is an object lesson in why to avoid trite mottoes.

  • As the Admiral points out above, Google chose to use the word “evil” in the context of mainstream business operations, so arguing whether or not they’re evil like, say, Sauron or Voldemort is off-point.

    The question is, are they “evil” compared to, say, Microsoft — the evil empire of software against which they were obviously defining themselves.

    By that standard, it’s grown harder over time to argue that Google is not just another big company in many ways. A useful and valuable and in many ways admirable one, but maybe not so special after all.

    An example discussed here from my own backyard in North Carolina.

  • Good point, Ed. But is “not-evil” necessarily special? Shouldn’t we want not being evil to be commonplace and evil to be what’s special? Google wasn’t necessarily claiming virtue with its pledge, eh?, but trying to avoid evil, no?

  • If one accepts not being evil as defined by not acting like a typical big corporation, e.g., Microsoft, then I’m not sure Google’s stated aspiration was possible once it went public.

    Management has a legal responsibility to act in the shareholders’ interest, within certain parameters; that is, to make the most money possible. This is big business, not Sunday school (and in the latter place we are told that a love of money is the root of all evil).

    And so, per my example, Google is now out there strong-arming public officials to keep tax-funded-deals quiet; they’re playing ball with the Chinese government to profit in that market; they have raised some questions about monopolistic practices with proposed deals and sheer market share; their secretive search formula — a competitive necessity — can seem arbitrary and unfair; etc.

    Does that make them evil? Again, not by Biblical standards, or such non-slogan-worthy definitions as not cooking the books or telling children that cigarettes are healthy. But by the standards of the game they’re playing, not being evil may not be an option.

  • “Warren,”
    Fair enough. PageRank more generically meant: Google values links, just differently. The larger point is that it was hard to convince news and media people that links out begat links back as the links enabled the conversation. All the time, I have eager and well-meaning newspaper people say they’ve started a blog and nobody’s reading it. I tell them to read first, then write, and to link into — and add to – conversations that are underway. When they do that, they get properly excited at being read and joining in. Never fails. So that’s the larger point. I have sat in newsrooms at various companies and had people yell at me, saying they’d never link out because, again, those people aren’t trusted. But thank goodness, those days are waning.

  • Warren, I’m not using Microsoft as a model of true evil, in the sense that some might call tobacco companies evil — in fact, I’m taking pains to point out that toboacco-company-style “evil” is not the kind of evil under discussion in the context of Google’s slogan.

    I’m suggesting that Google’s “don’t be evil” slogan is a reference to the big bad software companies against which it set out to do battle, of which Microsoft was the most reviled.

    Google was going to be different from all that. My argument is that as a huge, public software company, they aren’t really so different, and in some ways they cannot be.

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  • Jeff,

    I’d be very interested in your thoughts on my proposed need for a grassroots Google watchdog community — to help hold Google accountable because, as you said, “Google could do better,” and as you’d have to admit, Google could easily do worse (as Ed pointed out in his examples) — made up of people like me who are avid Google app users and other interested parties.

    Please try to get past the cheesy pun of a name and let me know what you think of the actual idea here:

  • Hey Jeff,

    This is slightly tangential, but it’s worth pointing out.

    You wrote: “… exist[s] only because Google made them possible. With Google’s ads, maps, hosting, services, and promotion, new creations bloom.”

    The extent to which we use Google services on is minimal.

    * We use AdSense on a few pages, but it’s experimental and doesn’t constitute significant revenue; we’re a grant-funded project.

    * We don’t use Google for hosting; we happily use Media Temple and appreciate the control of managing our own servers.

    * Our site does not and has not used Google Maps. We’ve created our own maps, and we have actually taken steps to educate/convince fellow Web developers that custom-building maps offers many advantages over relying on Google. (Paul Smith from our team has led the charge here — see his article “Take Control Of Your Maps” at A List Apart.)

    * Internally, we use Google services like mail and calendaring, but if those services didn’t exist, it’s safe to say their absence wouldn’t prevent us from doing our jobs.

    There’s no question that Google is a platform that has helped many companies become successful. But it’s not true that EveryBlock exists only because Google made us possible. In fact, we believe we’ve proved that, by identifying important elements you can develop yourself, you can create a successful new site without relying on services like Google Maps.

    Adrian @ EveryBlock

  • Woah! I earn three times as much as JJ from Google ads!

    As a happy atheist, I find I have a problem with the word “evil” in the terms used here. I think on reflection I had always internalised it as “don’t be Microsoft”…

    The problem is that if you remove the Dante-style loading from the word “evil”, without a suitable god it becomes rather meaningless.

    Which makes it highly suitable for business.

    I guess it is very much like Tesco’s “every little helps”, being trite and meaningless but in a really meaningful way.

  • There are numerous examples of “evil” (anti-competitive, abuse of monopoly power) evident in the G1 phone. You can’t activate it without a Gmail account, wherein your personal correspondence becomes the property of Google to use as they wish. Once activated, you either use Gmail or a very crappy non-Gmail mail reader that doesn’t have message filters or the ability to delete messages without opening them. Pressure to share your personal life with Google abounds.

    And while you’d think a device with a built-in GPS and 3G connection would host a nice turn-by-turn navigator interfacing to Google maps, but you’d be wrong. The Google Maps API legal agreement bans real-time access, so the open source AntNav had to be re-written to use a private maps database.

    Given the opportunity, Google acts even more anti-competitive than MS did in their heyday. Simply look at the facts.

  • Kyle

    How are you even qualified to talk about this subject?

  • Adrian,
    Google specifically aside, could you afford to build your own map service instead of using Google Maps or Mapquest or such?
    Steven Johnson has said that it would have cost him $50 million a decade ago to start but he could get the service up for $60k because he was able to use open platforms, among them GoogleMaps.
    I’m not saying that google is the only platform. Amazon services, open-source software, all these things enable companies to start.
    “Only” was my bad wording. But the sentiment seems secure.

  • Kyle,
    They invited me because I have a book coming out in January called What Would Google Do?
    Siva – who I introduced to them – has a book coming out later called The Googleization of Everything. John Battelle – who wrote the book Search – was going to be part of this but he dropped because of a back problem; Jim is subbing for him.

  • Steve,

    I think the grassroots watchdog group exists for google and every company today. It’s the internet. The smart companies are realizing that.

  • Jeff,

    Thanks for responding!

    OK the Internet is the means for the grassroots watchdog function to occur, but right now, for watching Google, there is no organized network for it (not even in a decentralized kind of way). Do you not see any value in this getting organized online in some way? And if so, why not?

  • Steve,
    Couldn’t hurt. But – learning from Google – I think the thing to do is to organize distributed comment on Google rather than trying to get people to come to one address and brand to create that comment. That comment could come from anywhere.
    In my book, I suggested that if Google ran a phone or cable company, we could use GoogleMaps to track outages.
    So use Google’s tools to track Google:
    * Get feeds of blog comments on Google using Google blog search (perhaps suggesting that people use a standard tag).
    * Do likewise with GoogleNews.
    * Use GoogleDocs to create surveys.
    * Use Google Trends to track people having problems with Google (e.g., google & customer service).
    And so on….

  • Mark

    Is Google evil?

    I agree with other commenters that the word “evil” needs to be defined first. A for-profit-company needs to do really bad things to be “evil”. So, Google can probably not be evil, by definiton.

    But if you look at Google’s behaviour, I see a lot of “evil” activities. Their opaqueness is well known in the industry, and they could use it to abuse their monopolistic power. Example #1: Adsense.

    You are an Adsense publisher. Wouldn’t you want to know which ads show on your site? Which ads were clicked? Which clicks earned how much? Which share is Google getting from clicks on your site? Then good luck finding that out. You won’t, because Google won’t tell you. They barely let you know anything about the ads that run on your site. You don’t know whether a click on the “God Loves You” ad above (that I am seeing right now, for whatever reason) will earn you $1 per click or $0.01, and whether Google was able to sell that click at $1.50 or $0.15 or $0.02. YOU JUST DON’T KNOW, because Google does not tell you. In other words – Google could just take the money from you as they see fit. Google faces a bad quarter? Well, Sergey, just crank up the revenue share, presto!

    Evil? Not in the sense of handing over Chinese users to the Chinese legal state. But “evil” in the sense of “unethitical behaviour” – bien sur, mon copain!

    Example #2: Profiling.

    You run Adsense on this blog. Google knows I am accessing this page. Now. They will know when I posted this (critical) comment. They probably know who I am. If not, it is probably not too difficult for them to find out. If they decide that they don’t like such critical commentary, they just disable my gmail account, my Adsense account, my Adwords account.

    But they would never do that, right?

    Again, would that behaviour be evil? No (the contracts allows them to terminate whatever service I have been using at any time without having to give a reason). But would it be “unethical behaviour”? Heck, yes. It affects my freedom of speech. These days I think twice before posting a critical comment re. Google. This machine is too dangerous to risk losing an Adsense account or your search rankings.

    Example #3: Copyrights.

    Google has a weird relationship to the copyright. They hate it, because it prevents them to fulfil their company mission (organizing the world’s information) and to build useful services to place ads around. Copyright owners disturb here. Just look at Youtube and the massive amount of infringement going on there. Sure, it’s not Google infringing, they are just providing the platform, it’s the users. Then again – even if this is not “evil”, it’s certainly unethical. If they see that infringements are happening, they could also decide to disable the platform altogether.

    And so I began to use some time ago for my searches. No, I do not trust Google at all.

  • I read of your site in Larry Weber’s “Marketing to the Social Web” about your open letter to Dell.

    I’m a CEO of a medium sized company and would like to register a complaint about as I think they have slipped to a point where their moral code is below the standards Weber writes. I believe this letter gets to the point. Fran is the internet specialist in my company, Kaffe Magnum Opus.

    This weekend I purchased two domains. and My purpose in writing is more than this.

    I purchased these one at a time. The first check out, the bill is $5,389 or some such bullshit. I realized that the first domain I looked for, had come up as available at a premium price, something like 5350 dollars. I clicked away to search more site names for obvious reasons. I did not know, and I challenge you to find anywhere it says that you bought it, in any way. Yet, it ends up in my cart. And at checkout there was no obvious way to remove it and another. There was also a five year plan on the cart, which I did not order.

    This is dishonest and not up to the moral standard of Kaffre Magnum Opus and I’d like you to find another service from which KMO can purchase domains.

    I would also like to store our domains at another site.

    Go Daddy has turned into a slippery slope.

    I’m not kiddiing.


  • Kyle

    Jeff – I know about the book. My question was how are you at all qualified to talk about the subject.

  • Jeff wrote: “Google specifically aside, could you afford to build your own map service instead of using Google Maps or Mapquest or such?”

    Actually, yes! That’s precisely what I attempted to convey in my previous comment, but I guess I didn’t make the point well enough. We *have* built our own map service, and Google had nothing to do with it.

    Google deserves credit for introducing the *concept* of dynamically draggable/zoomable maps, but the online mapping world has come a long way since that happened in 2005. It’s feasible, and affordable, to make your own maps — with zero code, services or data from Google. That’s what we’re doing on EveryBlock, and we couldn’t be happier about it.


  • Kyle,
    I’ve studied the subject for the book. What qualifies any of us to talk on any subject? Do you have opinions? I suspect you have them about me. I might ask your qualifications for that. but that would be rather silly, wouldn’t it?

  • Bob,

    If I dare say it…. try Google domains. See Doc Searls on the topic:

  • Got it, Adrian.

    Just wondering, though: Would you have been able to build when you did without Google Maps? Wasn’t it that demonstration that led to EveryBlock and its funding?

    I’m not saying Google is the only path. But if they helped you along the way to create a new company, I do think they at least deserve the credit.

  • Jim Mullen

    Is Craig’s List evil? I see thinly veiled ads for prostitutes on it all the time. Is eBay evil when someone tries to sell something illegal or inappropriate? Is Chrysler evil when a drunk kills someone in one of their cars?

    The whole might and power of the U.S government hasn’t been able to get China to change their policies since WWII but we expect Google to do it overnight? What has Nike or Apple done to get China to change its ways? Or a thousand other companies doing business there. What are you guys doing? Gonna to blog China free? Gee, that’s courageous. What giant risk takers you are.

  • Jim,

    Good point. Musing on your theme…. “Good” — or not evil — shouldn’t necessarily assume that one can reform the rest of the world. However, one does decide with whom to do business, no? I think cigarette companies are bad, so I wouldn’t work with them or help them in their work, for example. So should Google help China? That’s one formulation. But your formulation would also be right in saying that it would be impractical for Google to judge the virtue of everyone it does business with. (Hell, it does business with spammers and sploggers.) Remember that Google’s rule is intended for internal use, to guide employees and so they can guide the company. So there’s the debate: Google asking, “Should we do business in China under China’s rules?” Their answer was that some internet is better than none. Would the answer be the same for apartheid South Africa? It’s basically a boycott argument in the end, I suppose.

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  • “What qualifies any of us to talk on any subject?”


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  • Do morality and profit go together?
    They could, and somebody must say they should, but they usually do not need to.
    Usually profit comes first.
    Because morality doesn’t fill your stomach as well as profit.
    Sometimes it doesn’t at all.

    Do performance and profit go together?
    Usually they do. If you are successful you must be good, it is not always true the other way around, if you are good you are not necessarily successful.
    Success depends on many variables.
    First you must be known and to be known you must be widespread.
    Google was there at the right moment, at the right time and was as good as nobody else.
    You tried it, you were satisfied and you were addicted.
    So addicted that when you search, automatically you tape
    ” 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 Google juice – but it is too often opaque itself. But opaqueness has long been standard procedure in business.”

    Well the usual saying goes: We all have the same rights, as long as Google has its own rights…When you have power you also have privileges…

    “Our world is a better place because of Google”

    I wouldn’t say better.
    More people are on the Internet. More people are connected and can easily communicate.
    Google has a more effective and “independent” PR, where more or less everybody has his “right”(more or less) placement on the Internet.
    Google gave the chance to companies to create products, jobs, value, and wealth.

    All this existed before Google and will exist after Google, but Google gave a voice to it, created hierarchies so that more or less everybody is entitled to shout when his turn comes and if he has something interesting to say.

    And if he doesn’t (or Google thinks he doesn’t), he will be after the 10 pages of the search…relegated to eternal anonymity…

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  • Let the record show that the supporters of the proposition “Google violates its “Don’t be evil” motto” won this debate quite handily.

    Nevertheless, Google fans declared victory many times while the debate was in progress, which is pretty much what you’d expect.

  • I know I’m a little late to the party, but I’ve posted my analysis of the debate in advance of your Thursday book tour evening:

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  • […] We can only hope. Will Google be punished by Wall Street? It probably will. The stock has held up extremely well in the face of stiff competition. Only time will tell but the business model is what others aspire too be[…]

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