“Don’t Be Evil” is something most Android enthusiasts have heard in connection with Google at some point, but many of us probably don’t know where this phrase first came from. Paul Buchheit, a Google employee, first said it at a corporate values meeting back in 2000. The official corporate philosophy of Google doesn’t actually contain this phrase, but the prospectus of Google’s 2004 IPO said “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.” The original meaning of “Don’t be evil” is in reference to Google’s commitment to keep its search results free of skewed results or sponsored content that isn’t clearly marked as such. In this case I think it is safe to say that Google has kept its word. If you Google something it is easy to see what the search results are and what content is sponsored. Google also invests immense amounts of time and money into constantly improving those search results to remove spammers or anyone who uses paid links. But “Dont’ be evil” has taken on a new meaning as Google has collected more and more information about each of us who use their services.
In a recent interview Eric Schmidt, Google’s current chairman and former CEO said “Now, when I showed up, I thought this was the stupidest rule ever, because there’s no book about evil except maybe, you know, the Bible or something.” Yeah, Eric, it’s not like there were just a few simple rules carved into stone and given to humanity by God so that we know what we should and shouldn’t do… but I’m getting off track. The point Eric is making is valid. Even among those who study right and wrong for a living there is often a blurry line between good and evil. Simply saying “don’t be evil” might sound good, but practically does it actually help a company be more ethical in the long run? Apparently the answer is yes. Schmidt also said, “The idea was that we don’t quite know what evil is, but if we have a rule that says don’t be evil, then employees can say, I think that’s evil.”
This isn’t the time or place to debate each Google service and policy and to weigh it’s ethical merit (That place is Google+ and I’m looking forward to it). But I think it is fair to say that Google strives to be an ethical company. This isn’t necessarily the result of altruism. Google needs data about its users so that it can put relevant ads in front of us. We get incredible services like Gmail, Google Drive, and Google Maps free, but in exchange we allow Google to learn about our habits. The moment that Google abuses that power, users will run for the hills and Google knows it. If you would like some contrast, take a look at Facebook.
Is Google perfect? Of course not. Has Google made some big mistakes? Absolutely. Google is a company with a vested interest in protecting your privacy and giving you unfiltered, useful information when you use its services. “Don’t be evil” is a great motto and even if it doesn’t offer a solution for every problem it is a guiding principle that is allowing Google to improve our lives every single day.