Is Google Evil? The Great Debate

February 1, 2009
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This Thursday, I’m attending an evening with blogger Jeff Jarvis that is part of his book tour for “What Would Google Do?” I took the opportunity to review an Intelligence Squared debate, hosted last November by the Rosencranz Foundation, about whether Google violates its “don’t be evil” motto. You can listen to the debate on the NPR web site or read the transcript here. But, for those who can’t spare the hour and a half to listen or who don’t care to read through a 74-page transcript, I’ll attempt to summarize here, and then offer my own thoughts on both sides of the question.

Six people participated in this debate, not including the moderator, ABC News correspondent John Donvan.

Arguing for the motion that Google violates its motto:

  • Harry Lewis, Harvard, Professor of Computer Science
  • Randal Picker, University of Chicago, Professor of commercial law and senior fellow at the Computation Institute
  • Siva Vaidhyanathan, University of Virginia, Associate Professor of Media Studies and Law

Arguing against the motion that Google violates its motto:

This Thursday, I’m attending an evening with blogger Jeff Jarvis that is part of his book tour for “What Would Google Do?” I took the opportunity to review an Intelligence Squared debate, hosted last November by the Rosencranz Foundation, about whether Google violates its “don’t be evil” motto. You can listen to the debate on the NPR web site or read the transcript here. But, for those who can’t spare the hour and a half to listen or who don’t care to read through a 74-page transcript, I’ll attempt to summarize here, and then offer my own thoughts on both sides of the question.

Six people participated in this debate, not including the moderator, ABC News correspondent John Donvan.

Arguing for the motion that Google violates its motto:

  • Harry Lewis, Harvard, Professor of Computer Science
  • Randal Picker, University of Chicago, Professor of commercial law and senior fellow at the Computation Institute
  • Siva Vaidhyanathan, University of Virginia, Associate Professor of Media Studies and Law

Arguing against the motion that Google violates its motto:

  • Esther Dyson, journalist and entrepreneur
  • Jim Harper, director of Information Policy Studios at the Cato Institute
  • Jeff Jarvis, blogger; associate professor and director of interactive journalism program at the City University of New York

Google was invited to participate, but chose not to do so.

First, since the game is over, let’s take a look at the score, based on polling the debate’s live audience.

Before the debate:

  • 21% were for the motion that Google violates its motto.
  • 31% were against the motion that Google violates its motto.
  • 48% were undecided.

After the debate:

  • 47% were for the motion that Google violates its motto.
  • 47% were against the motion that Google violates its motto.
  • 6% were undecided.

While this may seem like a tie, it was clearly a victory for those who changed the most minds–namely, those arguing that Google does violate its motto.

But we at The Noisy Channel are not sheep who uncritically accept the purported wisdom of crowds. Let’s look at the actual arguments. I will try to distill the main arguments made by each side.

Those arguing in favor of the motion, i.e., that Google does violate its “don’t be evil” motto, made what amount to four  points:

  • Google’s China policy is evil (Harry Lewis): Google’s collaboration with the Chinese censors makes them complicit in the brainwashing and thought control of the Chinese people. Google’s motives cannot be equated to those of, say, the Voice of America in Bulgaria, even if both resulted in oppressed people experiencing partial access to the truth. The VOA was subverting Bulgaria’s regime, while Google made the deliberate choice to do business with a country whose local laws would require them to do evil. Google chose to collaborate with China’s censorship regime. That deliberate act violates its motto.
  • Google is evil by its own standard (Harry Lewis): Google surely intended a higher standard by “don’t be evil” than “don’t be as evil as Hitler”. Moreover, aspiration to not be evil isn’t enough. Google doesn’t live up to its aspirational promise. Google should be held to their literal motto, not the standard of whether they are evil in their hearts.
  • Google does evil by monopolistic abuse of market power (Randal Picker): Google has designed its auctions in a way that takes advantage of its market power. When faced with a conflict between what’s good for the world and its own interest, Google favors its own interests. Google acts as a monopoly, and its monopoly power is at the heart of its business model. They create evil that they do not need to create.
  • Google is guilty of hubris (Siva Vaidhyanathan): Google sees no limits to its power, and thus commits the deadliest sin of hubris. Aggressive competitiveness doesn’t make Google evil, but its holier-than-thou attitude is hypocritical hubris. Comparing Google to peers is irrelevant: Google has set its own standard and has not met it. Google’s motto reflects its hubris and is a cynical marketing ploy, a promise it has not kept.

Those arguing against the motion made these five points:

  • Google’s China policy virally spreads democracy (Esther Dyson): Google spreads democracy virally by its very presence, by engaging rather than succumbing to apathy. Google is not collaborating with the Chinese censors so much as infiltrating the regime, exposing people to the virtues of knowledge, inciting change for good. Google is bringing goodness to the world, eroding power structures and the abuse of power by others.
  • Google is not like other greedy corporations (Esther Dyson): Google’s leaders do not hold themselves directly accountable to shareholders, but rather pursue their own agenda that they believe maximizes long term value to shareholders. Google has set its own standard and has met it by aspiring to do good.
  • Much of the evil attributed to Google is more correctly attributed to governments (Esther Dyson): The real danger is not Google, it’s the government. Governments have power which can easily be abused, while Google is constrained by law, by competition, and by its users. Those constraints actually help prevent Google from being evil, but beyond that Google doesn’t want to be evil. In any case, don’t blame Google for bad things it does in order to comply with the law.
  • Google is no more evil than the internet as a whole (Jim Harper):  Google is neither evil like Hitler, nor does the fact of its aggressive competitiveness make it even in the Enron sense of being driven by corporate greed. Google is essentially good, and its stated aspiration to not be evil argues in its favor.
  • If Google is evil, then humanity is evil (Jeff Jarvis): Google is good and virtuous, and therefore not evil. Its very aspiration to not be evil is evidence in its favor. If Google is evil, then the standard is too high and we are all evil.  Why Google acts is more important than how Google acts, and Google acts out of the belief that they are trying to do good. If that is not enough the standard is God-like perfection. Google’s only crime is its success.

These are interesting arguments. But let me try to offer two arguments of my own to each side that, in my opinion, strengthen their positions:

For those arguing that Google is evil:

  • Google’s collaboration with the censors in China is comparable–albeit to a much lesser degree–to the behavior of companies that conducted business with the Nazis or supplied technology to the apartheid regime in South Africa. Google provided technology that the Chinese government wanted–perhaps even needed–in order to ensure China’s global competitiveness. But even if China did not need Google’s help (after all, they have Baidu), Google still was evil to collaborate with a regime that oppresses its people by censorship and widely documented abuses of human rights. Imagine walking in on a mob of people beating someone to death. Your contribution might have no effect on the outcome of the hapless victim. But it is still evil to participate.
  • Google is a parasite, abusing its market power to dominate the retail, media, and advertising industries. Two specific examples: the “secondary search” feature that Google imposed on retail and media sites, undermining those site owners’ control of their users’ experience; and the lack of transparency in Google’s auction model for advertising. Google’s successful acquisition of DoubleClick and its abortive attempt to partner with Yahoo! show that it only seeks to reinforce this market dominance.

For those arguing that Google is not evil:

  • If Google’s collaboration with the censors in China is evil, it is at most a lesser evil. China already has Baidu, which offers comparable technology and competitive advantage to China as a nation. Google at least offers a wedge that might open up China to viral democratization. As Google senior policy counsel Andrew McLaughlin said, Google made the decision that provides the greatest access to information to the greatest number of people.
  • Google may be not be winning the love of the retail, media, and advertising industries, but it is serving the interests of its the constituency that matters: users. Google has given users–ordinary people, the little guy–unprecedented access to information, and has unlocked the control that retailers and media companies have held over this content. Furthermore, Google has democratized advertising, making it possible for smaller players to operate in a market previously dominated by big, mass-market brands.

And where do I stand personally? I think it’s silly to evaluate a company in terms of good and evil, even if Google has invited us to do so. There are the rare examples of companies being evil (IG Farben in the traditional sense of the word; Enron in the more modern sense of being the caricature of a morally bankrupt corporation), but these are the exceptions. I find it more useful to ask whether Google is making the world a better place.

For the most part, I think the answer is yes. I remember the pre-Google world, and I’m much happier living in this one. Nonetheless, I believe that Google, by resting on its laurels, is dragging the rest of the world down it its complacency. Do I blame Google for its complacency? Yes, I do, and I’ve told them as much.

But I also blame the rest of us. We continue using Google by choice–perhaps pressured by network externalities, but certainly not by coercion. It’s up to us, as users and as technologists, to set the bar higher.

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