Is Google Evil?

by Devanshu Mehta

In the great Hindu mythological tale- the Mahabharata– there is a young prince named Yudhishthira who always speaks the truth. So divine was this virtue that his chariot always remained a few feet above ground. And so implicit that even his enemies, in the heat of battle against him, would trust his word.

Until a fateful day during the great battle, when Yudhisthiras side- the Pandavas- decided that their teacher Drona, who fought for their enemies, must be killed. No one had the skill to do it, unless Drona could be emotionally weakened. And so the plan was hatched.

Drona’s son was named Aswathama. Coincidentally, this was also the name of an elephant. The Pandavas killed the elephant Aswathama and spread the word that Aswathama had been killed. Drona was distraught, assuming it was his son. The only way to confirm the story was to ask Yudhishthira- he who would never lie.

“Is Aswathama dead?” asked Drona.

“Yes,” said Yudhishthira. And then under his breath, he continued: “The man or the elephant.

Drona did not hear the second part as he threw down his weapons and wept. He was quickly killed, and the Pandavas were one step closer to victory.

However, the moment Yudhishthira muttered the half-truth under his breath, his flying chariot came half-way to the ground and stayed that way for the rest of his life. Even today in India, you can simply say “Narova Kunjarova” (man or elephant) and people will know you are referring to a half-truth or a white lie.

The moral: It takes more effort to keep a white sheet white than it does to keep a grey sheet grey. Just ask the formerly-perfect record of last year’s New England Patriots. Or Google.

Three wise monkeys

Google’s motto was “Do no evil.” With a motto like that, they were bound to fall short. They have had many missteps; their chariot is undoubtedly half-way to the ground. But are they evil?

Tomorrow at NPR’s Intelligence Squared debate, Jeff Jarvis, Esther Dyson and Jim Harper will be debating against the motion “Google violates its ‘don’t be evil’ motto“. Siva Vaidhyanathan, Randal Picker and Harry Lewis will be for the motion.

Jeff Jarvis has put up his debate notes on his blog and makes many points that I generally agree with. Google is not evil, if the word ‘evil’ is to retain any meaning. There are evil corporations- ones that have championed wars, economic turmoil, corporations that have hid their toxic contamination of water supplies and even milder forms of evilness, such as consumer unfriendly behavior. There are many seriously evil corporations, but Google is not even close to being in this group.

Of course, when drafting the motto, the founders were probably aiming higher than this kind of evil. What they were probably aiming for was to never adhere to the common corporate evilness- the old Microsoft kind of evil.

Jarvis points to all the good things Google has given us- a way to make money off content in the Internet age, a new platform (maps, services) for a new generation of companies to build tools, using the wisdom of crowds to rank content and the general good that comes from making the world a more connected and smaller place.

Jim Harper on the Tech Liberation Front blog makes similar arguments. But both of them gloss over two areas where Google is venturing in to potential evilness

  1. China: Harper and Jarvis both offer the same argument for Google’s censorship in China: “exiting China would abandon the Chinese people to government-approved information sources only.” But in the current scenario, Google is that government-approved source! By censoring their results, they have become the tool of oppression- which is fine if your a regular corporation out to make a buck, but not when your fundamental motto is to do no evil. With China, Google’s chariot came half-way to Earth.
  2. Privacy: This is a huge debacle waiting to happen. Google has sent out strong signals that they understand the ramifications of a single privacy scandal and have started to craft policies to safeguard search privacy. The advantage for consumers is that there is no brand-loyalty or lock-in with search, so we, the users, would leave Google in droves if it became clear that they are no longer good stewards of our data.

In general, however, I come down on the Jarvis, Harper, Dyson side of the debate. Google is not evil- yet. And the amount of good they do as a company, as a corporate citizen and in philanthropy offsets most of the potential for evil. Their behavior in China has damaged their reputation, but for a company that is aiming for perfection, I will take a near-miss.

So, was there a precise moment when Google’s chariot came half-way to Earth? Maybe it was when Eric Schmidt said the following, on their decision to censor in China:

We actually did an evil scale and decided not to serve at all was worse evil.

Of course, more to the point was what Google’s Marissa Mayer said more recently:

I think that ‘Don’t Be Evil’ is a very easy thing to point at when you see Google doing something that you personally don’t like; it’s a very easy thing to point out so it does get targeted a lot.

Off topic, but in the same ballpark: is Barack Obama setting himself up for a similar backlash? His post-partisan, everything to every progressive, hope, change, peace, net neutrality, end of oil chariot is bound to come flying to Earth. Maybe NPR will hold a debate in 2011 about that?