Why Google Replaced the Golden Rule with 'Don't Be Evil'

Google is once again demonstrating that it treats others in ways that it does not want to be treated.  Google is requiring users of its latest social networking service, Google+, to have public profiles.  Meanwhile, top Google executives are taking advantage of a hidden Google+ feature to enjoy greater privacy.

Google wants Google+ users to disclose the number and identities of their friends.  But top Google executives are hiding the very same information.  Technology writer Ed Bott learned how when he visited socialstatistics.com, a website that tracks thousands of Google+ users.  Bott observed that four of the top ten users (ranked according to number of "followers") were Googlers.  He also noticed something different about them: each displayed a "0" in the "friends" column.  Exploring Google+'s user interface, Bott discovered what he describes as a "useful but hard-to-find privacy feature that is disabled by default."  He found that clicking on an unlabeled icon opens a dialog box and unchecking one of the settings makes information about your friends private.

In theory, any Google+ user can hide the number and identities of their friends.  But Google+'s designers went out of their way to discourage most users from doing this.  As the world's biggest data-mining operation, Google knows more about user behavior than anyone else.  Most users presume the default settings are best and won't try to change them.  Still, other users might be curious, so Google hid the dialog box behind an unlabeled icon.  Those users who do manage to find it would have to uncheck a box; Google knows that some users would never think to do that while others would worry about unintended consequences.  In the end, only insiders and power users get privacy.

Unfortunately, this isn't an isolated case: Google routinely treats others in ways that Google does not want to be treated.  Google advocates open systems -- particularly in markets Google does not control.  But Google's search engine and ad auctions are closed systems.  Google claims that it cares about users' privacy.  But Google's previous social networking service, Google Buzz, outraged users by publicly disclosing their Gmail contacts.  And Google's Street View cars eavesdropped on users' wireless networks.  Google tells users they should accept the loss of privacy as a modern fact of life while Google zealously guards its search, ad auction, and infrastructure secrets.

How does Google get away with treating others in ways that Google does not want to be treated?  Google's founders crafted a brilliant public relations strategy (pretending all the while that they don't engage in PR).  They insist that Google isn't in business to make money but to make the world a better place.  And they said, "You can make money without doing evil."  These claims were used to convince people that Google is the world's most ethical company.  And it worked: Google has gained the trust of one billion users.

To wit, Google gets away with violating the Golden Rule by claiming it has invented something better.  By touting its "Don't Be Evil" motto, Google brushes aside a principle that has been universally recognized as the single best guide to ethical behavior for well over two millennia.  

It's hard to argue with Google's "Don't Be Evil" motto; everyone agrees that companies should not be evil.  However, as a guide to ethical behavior "Don't Be Evil" is seriously flawed.  In fact, it may be the lowest business ethics standard ever devised.  Most people think of evil as the worst extreme on the ethical continuum.  Evil is what we fear most.  When asked for an example of a truly evil person, most people will think of someone such as Adolph Hitler or Osama bin Laden.  It goes without saying that businesses should not be evil.

Most unethical business practices fall short of evil.  Lying and cheating are wrong, but few people would consider someone who makes false claims on a job application to be evil.  By promising not to be evil, Google leaves room for infringing copyrights, falsely claiming that its search engine is unbiased, and misrepresenting the purpose of its free products and services.

"Don't Be Evil" is a clever slogan that skips right past the kinds of ethical decisions businesses must make every day.  If Google's leaders agreed to being treated the way they treat others, then rest assured that they would be more respectful of others.  The Golden Rule is still the best guide to proper behavior.  It's time for Google to admit what ethical people have known since antiquity.

Ira Brodsky is co-author with Scott Cleland of the new book Search & Destroy: Why You Can't Trust Google Inc.  Visit www.SearchAndDestroyBook.com.

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