FOR MORE THAN a decade Google Inc. operated with a simple unofficial motto, “Don’t be evil.” And for a long time, the search-engine giant really seemed to be a company driven mainly by the desire to provide a truly excellent service in a manner that put the needs of the user first. Well, that slogan may have been good for a super-geek startup, but it doesn’t seem to work so well for the publicly held global empire Google has become.
Here are a few recent examples of Google behavior that is somewhat less than “not evil.” In March of this year, the company launched a new “privacy” policy that basically consists of warning you that you’re not going to have any. In April, the company was fined by the FCC for privacy violations committed by its infamous “Street View” cars. Apparently, in addition to collecting photographs of random sites on Google Earth, those cars have also been collecting data from unsecured home Wi-Fi networks. Google has also been charged with anti-trust violations for entering an agreement with Apple, Intel, Adobe, Intuit, Pixar, and Lucasfilm to never recruit each other’s employees.
The “don’t be evil” line worked well for Google back in the late 1990s when it could compare itself to Microsoft. That company, in its heyday, was an unabashed incarnation of evil in the best old robber-baron style. It routinely did things like programming your computer to sabotage its competitors’ software. Meanwhile, Google’s main competitor in the search business, Yahoo, was making headlines for turning over dissidents’ web activity to the Chinese government. In those days the ethical high ground wasn’t hard to reach, and Google seized it.
But Microsoft is history now. These days its founder, Bill Gates, seems mostly interested in trying to buy back his soul with good works. And his successors persist in flogging progressively worse and worse versions of its old operating system and its trademark applications, which are mostly clones of products invented by other companies.
The high-tech business is a lot more sophisticated today. Back when Microsoft held a gun to your head and made you pay, Google ascended by seeming to give stuff away. It used to take a half-hour of tortoise time for Microsoft’s ad-laden MSN page to load, but Google always popped up clean and white, ad-free, and quick as a bunny. And it delivered miraculous results.
It took us ordinary civilians a while to figure out how Google was making its money. But now we all know. Microsoft was an extortionist, but Google is a pickpocket. While it has us dazzled with those personalized search results and pictures of the roof of our house, it is quietly going through our wallet, writing down all those passwords and phone numbers we have on scraps of paper and business cards, copying our shopping lists, and maybe scanning all those pictures of our kids. The money is still there when the wallet is returned, so we never know the difference, but Google now has everything it needs to sell us out to advertisers who will, someday soon, seize our brains and project personalized ads onto the back of our eyelids. That’s the Google way.
But then Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg came along. He’s another Harvard bad boy in the Gatesian mold, willing to do with brazen aggression what Google was already doing with a veneer of bohemian gentility. One doesn’t imagine the question of evil gets discussed much at Facebook headquarters. So to keep shoveling in those mountains of advertiser cash, Google had to take the gloves off. Apparently, Google has a new unofficial motto. Executive chair Eric Schmidt articulated it to The Atlantic magazine a year and a half ago when he said, “Google policy is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it.” In other words, don’t be so evil that you drive away customers.
Danny Duncan Collum teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort. His latest book is the novel White Boy .