Celebrating Google’s Don’t Be Evil

“I don’t think Mr. Page is sitting in a large chair in a dark tower, wearing a large pinkie ring and stroking a hairless cat while plotting world domination. (At least I hope he’s not.)

But as Google has grown, and the company sees the threat of others on the horizon, it seems that “do the right thing” may have been paused to prevent itself from fading like a Yahoo or an AOL.”
Dr Evil

Nick Bilton, Growing Too Big for a Conscience, New York Times

“I don’t think Google was ever “not evil.” Nor do I think that Google was ever “not good.” I think, like any company, it’s not perfect. But unlike most companies, it created an entire “Don’t Be Evil” mantra for itself that it could have never lived up to.”

Danny Sullivan, On Google & Being Evil, Marketing Land

“For months, ‘Don’t be evil’ was like a secret handshake among Googlers. An idea would come up in a meeting with a whiff of anticompetitiveness to it, and someone would remark that it sounded … evil. End of idea.” …

“In his ‘Owner’s Manual to Google,’ Page put front and center the unofficial motto of Google, ‘Don’t be evil.” “We aspire to make Google an institution that makes the world a better place,” he wrote. “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. This is an important aspect of our culture and broadly shared within the company.”

Steven Levy, In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives

The New York Times’ Nick Bilton wrote a strong piece arguing that a growing Google is struggling to live up to its founding values. Search industry expert Danny Sullivan argues that “Don’t be evil” was never attainable and somewhat misguided.

Without wading into the important points Nick and Danny raise, I want to take a moment to celebrate the young Google’s decision to take the “Don’t Be Evil” pledge, and to spend over a decade trying to live up to it.

Last year at South by Southwest I heard Senator Al Franken state that corporations are legally required to maximize revenues.

And yet Google clearly told potential investors that they were devoted to doing good, and that they should only buy the stock if they were comfortable with that. Google’s aspirations to morality were not just an empty motto. They affected their internal decisions, and they clearly told new investors that the company did not see maximizing returns as its only goal.

Danny Sullivan makes two specific points against “Don’t Be Evil”:

  1. It’s shorthand for “don’t be like our evil competitors.”
  2. It leads Googlers to simplistic views in dismissing critics’ claims. How can you say we’re not respecting your privacy, didn’t you see our motto?

Danny suggests not that Google drop its aspirations, but that it turn them more positive, into something like “Be good” or “Be good to our customers.” Danny provides quotes from Steven Levy’s In The Plex to show that some early Googlers felt the same way.

I suspect that “Don’t Be Evil” helped drive Google’s values for a decade in a way that “Be Good” would not have.

Absolute, negative phrasing has advantages that positive phrasings do not. The commandments “Don’t murder. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t perjure” set absolute limits more effectively than positive statements like “Support life.” Granted, “Don’t be evil” is more vague, and is focused on not being rather than not doing.

But my only strong disagreement with Danny is his statement that “‘Don’t Be Evil’ was incredibly dumb.”

“The next time you hear about, or call someone, a hypocrite, remember that subjecting themselves to such labeling is a price people pay for being identified with standards higher than themselves.”

Dennis PragerThink a Second Time

Yes, Google makes mistakes. Yes, Google probably overestimates its own virtues and its competitors’ vices. Yes, some business decisions may really be about more evil vs less evil. And yes, Google may misdirect its perceived morality into a misguided or evil crusade.

And still. Google has been a great company that has done great things. Google is a very powerful entity that should have internal values that restrain it.

The only consensus Western value is tolerance. People love to celebrate the moral failures of those who publicly aspire to any additional value. I congratulate Google for privately and then publicly declaring a commitment to not be evil, and to put that phrase on the cover of their IPO filing.

Yes, it’s a hell of a challenge living up to that value. But better to occasionally stumble in trying to maintain a high moral standard than to abandon the standard. Good luck, Google.