On Being Good
Google’s motto is, “Don’t be evil.”
I’ve always found that motto disturbing for two reasons. First, a company that can differentiate itself—successfully, no less—from its competitors merely by promising not to be evil implies that the average company is ridiculously corrupt. A person who announced, “My motto is, ‘don’t shoot people’” would be notable because no one thinks you should shoot people, making the promise weird and redundant—not because the promise represented some great sacrifice. Yet Google’s promise to do no evil somehow hits people, especially those in the tech industry with fresh memories of Microsoft in the 90s and the specter of Oracle in the 2000s, as a breath of fresh air. Great for Google, but pathetic for our industry.
But the second reason, and the more important one for me, is that “Don’t be evil” is not the same as “Do the right thing.” A person who watches idly while a bully beats someone up isn’t being evil, but they are being a coward, and they are not doing the right thing. Their interference could save a poor victim a world of pain and suffering, probably at minimal risk. Instead, they simply watch the bully, knowing that they themselves would not do the same thing. This may not be doing evil, but it’s also not the moral high ground. Knowing you would never beat someone up is not the same as protecting those weaker than you.
Google chose its motto carefully; if its motto were instead, “Do the right thing,” then it would have no presence in China. For all the corruption that people accuse our government of perpetrating, our government does not censor the Internet, does not shoot and incarcerate those who disagree with it, does not deny its citizens the right to vote, and does not persecute religious minorities as a matter of state policy. China does. And until today, while Google may not have been evil in China, they certainly enabled evil to go about its business by running a censored search engine there. They were unequivocally better than Yahoo, who handed over the names and email addresses of dissidents, but they weren’t doing the right thing, either. They weren’t standing up to an autocratic, dictatorial regime.
As of today, that has changed. Google has announced that they will no longer censor their Chinese search results. While you could argue that Google’s doing this out of anger that their resources have been hacked, rather than out of a genuine desire to protect its users, their result of their actions is beyond dispute: they are taking the moral high ground. And potentially at great cost: while China has certainly failed to materialize as the unstoppable threat to the West that pundits were claiming it would become two decades ago, it’s nevertheless home for nearly a billion people, and shows no sign of stopping its economic growth in the near future. For Google to make a move that will almost certainly sacrifice any chance they have of winning the Chinese market is an economically painful move.
But it’s the right move.
So, at least for today, at least this once, look at Google as a company which is not merely avoiding perpetrating evil. Google is doing the right thing, at great cost. And they deserve to be lauded for that.
Microsoft and Yahoo: this is your turn to follow in Google’s footsteps. Do the right thing. It won’t make you money. In fact, it’ll cost you. But it’s the right thing to do.
Google: where it’s not don’t be evil. It’s, “Do the right thing.”
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