Does Google Deserve To Be Labeled Evil?

    March 29, 2012
    Chris Crum

Is it just me or does Google seem to be getting a lot of negative press lately? There seem to be an irregular amount of stories about Google and whether or not it’s “evil” making the rounds. There is even a Facebook page named, “Google is Evil“!

Do you think accusations that Google is evil are justified? Let us know what you think.

Also read: Developers Prefer Google Over Facebook… Do You?

First, let’s look at what Google actually says. Here’s the company’s code of conduct. The part about evil says:

“Don’t be evil.” Googlers generally apply those words to how we serve our users. But “Don’t be evil” is much more than that. Yes, it’s about providing our users unbiased access to information, focusing on their needs and giving them the best products and services that we can. But it’s also about doing the right thing more generally — following the law, acting honorably and treating each other with respect.

The Google Code of Conduct is one of the ways we put “Don’t be evil” into practice. It’s built around the recognition that everything we do in connection with our work at Google will be, and should be, measured against the highest possible standards of ethical business conduct. We set the bar that high for practical as well as aspirational reasons: Our commitment to the highest standards helps us hire great people, who then build great products, which in turn attract loyal users. Trust and mutual respect among employees and users are the foundation of our success, and they are something we need to earn every day.

The document takes the reader through the following sections: Serve Our Users, Respect Each Other, Avoid Conflicts of Interest, Preserve Confidentiality, Protect Google’s Assets, Ensure Financial Integrity and Responsibility, and Obey the Law.

The whole thing ends with the following line:

And remember . . . don’t be evil, and if you see something that you think isn’t right — speak up!

It seems like that part about trust might be the biggest area of concern, considering all of the talk out there on the newswires, the blogosphere, and the social networks.

Gizmodo has an article called “The Case Against Google“. This is mainly about privacy, how people “don’t trust Google with their data,” which is “new”.

“Many of us have entered into a contract with the ur search company because its claims to be a good actor inspired our trust,” writes the article’s author, Mat Honan. “Google has always claimed to put the interests of the user first. It’s worth questioning whether or not that’s still the case. Has Google reached a point where it must be evil?”

The article goes on to proclaim that “search is dying,” basically implying that “Search Plus Your World” is making people not want to use Google search anymore. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s got it’s issues, and that Google’s results could be a lot better these days, but there’s no way SPYW is killing Google search. Sorry. It’s just not. For all of the media outcry about it, I don’t know anybody in my personal life that has stopped using Google to search the web because of it. Most people just don’t care that much.

Google’s “Search Plus Your World,” which is essentially the integration of Google+ (with some other things sprinkled in) into search results, is no doubt driven by that ad revenue addiction in the end. The better Google+ does, the more Facebook-like data Google can get about you, and potentially use to help advertisers better target consumers. Some may find that evil, advertising is how Google makes its money, which allows Google to do more things. Google is a business. It’s not a charity, though it does have some particularly un-evil charitable initiatives.

Danny Sullivan, who spends much of his time specifically writing about Google and the search industry, even told the New York Times recently, “I don’t think they were ever not evil,” though he did go out of his way to put that into greater context in his own article. He references another quote he gave the NYT: “They are a big company, and any big company is always going to have something happen that they don’t expect. But these things keep happening where you can’t even trust their word.”

“It pains me to say it, when I know so many people at Google truly and honestly mean for their company to be doing good things, to be trusted,” he adds in his own article. “It also pains me when I know Google has done many good things for the web as a whole. The fact that sites don’t have to pay just for the chance to be showing up in ‘free’ listings in search engines is largely down to the force of Google.”

Matthew Stenslaand-Bos at SF Bay says Google has gotten “big for its britches.” He writes:

The laundry list of the company’s violations and missteps has only grown in recent years, and you can find one for almost every area of interest. Regarding social networking, Google was caught rigging their search results to display items from their sources — Google+, for example — before those of their competitors, like Twitter and Facebook. So much fair and unbiased search.

Last year, Google was caught hosting ads from online Canadian pharmacies that led to illegal importation of prescription drugs. Google was forced to forfeit $500 million — a little slap on the wrist. But it was in the area of privacy that the company seems to have really blown it.

That part about privacy is about the new consolidated policy that we’ve discussed numerous times, which personally, I think has been way out of proportion.

Ryan Tate at Gawker has a piece about former CEO (and current Executive Chairman) Eric Schmidt “calling on programmers, like those at Google, to speak out against any evil practices their bosses ask them to perform”. The piece references one from the Cal Alumni Association at UC Berkley, which awarded Schmidt Alumnus of the Year. The following quote from Schmidt is highlighted:

“Scientists from Berkeley spoke out on the dangers of nuclear war, on atomic proliferation and things like this. And it was the scientists that got people concerned. It was the scientists who spoke out to make the world a better place. And that’s a responsibility that I think I and others have.”

Rob Enderle at TGDaily has an article called “Google vs. Microsoft: The hero becomes the villain“. Is Google the villain now?

“Truthfully, the idea for writing this article was prompted by a conversation I had this morning about Stanford University. Specifically, we were discussing how the students have noticeably shifted alliances dramatically over the last decade,” Enderle writes. “A scant ten year ago they hated Microsoft and Google was the White Knight, yet it is truly amazing how those positions have reversed today.”

He talks about how ads at Google were initially perceived as “little more than a necessary evil to generate money and fund the firm,” adding, “The most fascinating aspect of all this? The apparent internal dislike for ads as something ‘unclean.’ Yet, the now conflicted company appears focused (perhaps a better word would be addicted) on the revenue the ads generate.”

Ads are still Google’s main driver of revenue, so it is still the majority of Google’s funding. Doesn’t it make sense that Google would want to be “addicted” to the thing that is not only driving its business, but funding for innovation and more ambitious projects. You know they have self-driving cars, right? Did you know these cars are even inspiring state legislation?

Ads are only part of Enderle’s story, as he goes into operating strategy, mostly as a comparison to Microsoft’s strategy, and the much-publicized privacy issues with Safari.

In a PCWorld article, Enderle (again) asks if Google is “facing the beginning of the end.” This was in response to that much-talked about post from the former Google engineer James Whittaker, who said, “The Google I was passionate about was a technology company that empowered its employees to innovate. The Google I left was an advertising company with a single corporate-mandated focus.”

In the PCWorld article, Enderle does raise an interesting point: “Google should have worked to line up Microsoft and Facebook as partners, not competitors.” I’m not sure if it’s the right point, but it’s an interesting scenario to consider.

That’s just a few brief glimpses of some of the articles out there. There are plenty of stories currently in Google News about Google and evil.

You might say Google brought this kind of discussion on itself, by simply making that “Don’t Be Evil” mantra a part of its code in the first place. Google has certainly grown a whole lot since that was created, but it does remain part of the company’s philosophy to this day, whether you think they’re honoring it or not. It may be the very fact that this is such a well-known part of the company’s founding and existence, which sparks a much heftier amount of criticism and stories with the words “Google” and “Evil” in the title together that other companies are immune to. It makes for catchy headlines, for sure.

It’s interesting that not a lot of the articles out there (at least the ones calling the company evil) are about how Google is changing the way it delivers its search results, which could greatly impact the traffic it sends to other sites. Given all the hoopla around the Panda update for the past year or so, which saw some companies having to layoff employees, it’s a bit surprising that there isn’t more focus on this part of the discussion in the more mainstream news. Google is increasingly finding ways to keep people on its own properties longer (which means less time on sites like yours). To be clear, I don’t think this is necessarily “evil” either, but it’s certainly significant to doing business on the web.

Is Google really evil? More evil than its peers (like Microsoft, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, etc.)? Tell us what you think in the comments.