What Does “Don’t Be Evil” Mean Now?

It’s awfully convenient for Google that their famed corporate motto, “Don’t be evil”, doesn’t actually specify or define what counts as “evil”. And without any definition, they’re pretty much free to do anything they want, and just declare it not-evil.

Now, some of the things they’ve done have just been misguided. For example, I really, honestly believe that when they sniffed people’s unencrypted wifi traffic while doing Street View mapping drives, they weren’t being purposefully malicious, just absent-mindedly misguided. (I also have trouble getting too upset about sniffing unencrypted wifi signals — yeah, it’s kind of bad, but if the people who owned those networks really wanted privacy, would it have been that hard to turn on WPA?)

And then there was the bit where they auto-subscribed everyone with a Gmail account to Google Buzz — which, by default, made huge amounts of information public that shouldn’t have been. This was a really massive mistake, but given the way Google backpedaled from it, I still believe that they were just misguided and didn’t think things through at all, rather than actively wanting to cause harm.

But when Google Checkout tried to impose a “no adult content” rule on Dreamwidth? That’s a lot greyer. In essence, what Google did was tell an organization devoted to enabling free speech that it had to muzzle its users.

Google has the right to choose who it wants to do business with, based on whatever criteria it wants. But just because their choice is legal doesn’t make it “non-evil”. It’s not clear just exactly what “adult content” would have included, but there’s a strong likelihood that it would have included things like:

  • safer-sex information, including family planning, contraception, and how to use condoms properly;
  • discussion of rape, including rape survivor groups;
  • promotion of equal rights for sexual minorities

Keeping information like that off the Internet? Is not helping the world. Suppressing that kind of information harms the world, and I’d qualify it as a straight-up evil act.

It’s possible, though, that they only mean “actual pornography” (however you define that). As much as I personally may like both pornography itself, and the right to disseminate and receive it, I have to admit that simply choosing not to do business with a company that helps people publish it is not, in itself, evil.

So what about entering into secret back-room agreements to try to do an end-run around Net Neutrality and everything it stands for? And then promulgating a legislative framework proposal for Internet governance that would turn the principle of Net Neutrality into a defanged, loophole-ridden and corporation-appeasing shadow of its former self — while pretending, on the surface, to support it?

In effect, this means a full-scale attack on the core of a free Internet. This is something that reminds me of when Microsoft was going to try to “de-commoditize [the] protocols” that formed the basis for the Internet and World Wide Web, back in the first Halloween memo.

If there is a way in which this isn’t evil, can someone please explain it to me? Because it sure looks evil to me.

In the meantime, there’s one tiny problem with trying to boycott Google: They make some damned useful products. Still, if you want to start reducing your reliance on Google, here are some pointers that may help.

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