Topic: Business & Commercial

Google Ethics, Part I

When a corporation trumpets a corporate creed like “Do No Evil,” it had better be prepared to end up on the right side of the ethical dilemmas sure to come. That creed is the watchword of Google, the internet search engine giant, and whether it is a meaningful statement of values or just hyperlink hype is in much doubt, thanks to Google’s seemingly inconsistent responses to two ethical challenges tossed at it by two different governments. Whether Google’s solutions to these dilemmas are dictated by the ideal “Do No Evil” or the goal “Forgo No Profit” depends on its motives.

One of the governments, ours, wants Google’s cooperation to keep on-line pornography away from minors. Google has resisted a Justice Department subpoena for many thousands of web addresses and random search requests the Feds say they need to defend the constitutionality of the 1998 Child Online Protection Act being challenged in court by the American Civil Liberties Union. Google’s main search engine rivals, such as America Online, Microsoft Corporation’s Microsoft Network, and Yahoo, have complied with most of the government’s requests. But Google has been standing on principle. At least the company would like you to think so.

“Google users trust that when they enter a search query into a Google search box, not only will they receive back the most relevant results, but that Google will keep private whatever information users communicate absent a compelling reason,” the company explained in its filing in District Court. Admirable. Then again, an awful lot of Google traffic comes from searches for pornographic material. Google is in the First Amendment business, but like all search engines, it is also in the pornography business. Which is it protecting? The answer would seem to be “both,” problematical if one regards hard-core pornography accessible to children as a societal evil and the company proclaiming “Do No Evil” won’t lift a finger to prevent it. But okay— we’ll give Google the benefit of the doubt on this ethical balancing act. After all, I don’t want the government looking through all my search requests and putting me on some “ethics geekazoid” list. Google is standing up for freedom and individual rights.

Apparently not when other governments want to restrict these things, however. Google decided to cooperate with the People’s Republic of China when the repressive government there insisted that Google make it difficult for Chinese users to find human rights resources and other officially disapproved web sites as a condition of launching Google’s Chinese search engine. Here it is following in the craven footprints of Microsoft, but then Microsoft doesn’t have “Do No Evil” as its motto. Google and its various apologists have rolled out an impressive array of predictable rationalizations for this deception, which at first glance looks an awful lot like the a big company not being willing to pass up a couple million new users. “Google’s censoring of its Chinese site won’t work in the long run,” they tell us. “Freedom will find a way.” “Better for the Chinese to have some access to the outside world through Google than none at all,” they point out. “Keep the dialogue open!” others insist. “Hey, some other company would do it if we didn’t!” But while Google’s responses to the U.S. and Chinese governments seem inconsistent from a “Do No Evil” viewpoint, they appear quite consistent with a pure business, dollars and cents analysis. In both cases, Google did what was in its own best interests, and innocent young American web-surfers and Chinese Tiananmen Square wannabes be damned.

This isn’t the first time the company exposed its true colors, which is to say, acted like the huge corporation it has become. At the end of 2005, Google tossed out its long-held ideals regarding the absolute integrity of its search results in order to acquire a piece of America On Line. According to the New York Times, Google’s 5% share of AOL included an agreement that Google would give favored placement to AOL web content.

So much for integrity.

Google’s certainly not a bad company or an especially unethical one. The point is that it is not an especially exemplary one either. It is a profit-making corporation, dedicated to making money for its investors while doing a job that it does very well. But as long as its credo of “Do No Evil” is not subordinate to the profit motive, the phrase is public relations posturing and little more. Based on its conduct over the last year or so, Google’s self-glorifying motto is misleading and deceptive.

The ethical thing would be to drop it.

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