24 Nov More on the ‘Is Google Evil?’ Debate
New York Times, By Saul Hansell, November 22, 2008
The question of Google’s evil was in the air around The Times on Thursday. Just after I pushed the save button on the post that posed the question whether Google violates its “Don’t be evil” motto, I sat in with the Times editorial board (that is, those who write the unsigned comments on the editorial page) for a meeting with Eric Schmidt, Google’s chief executive and also a member of President-elect Barack Obama’s transition economic advisory board. Mr. Schmidt talked mainly about policy issues, like Google’s plan for alternative energy, and his thoughts about privacy. Unprompted, he brought up Google’s motto, explaining how the company thinks about the sort of tough questions that come up in its business, like whether to identify people who search for child pornography to law enforcement agencies. (It does not because it doesn’t want to be making judgments about its users.) “‘Don’t be evil’ is an invitation to debate,” he said. “It means we will fight over what it means.” Beyond Google’s endless meetings, the company’s motto certainly has prompted debate this week. I wrote my original post based on a formal, Oxford-style debate held in New York on Tuesday. That debate left the audience tied with 47 percent believing Google violates the dictum and an equal number believing it does not. And more than 100 Bits readers have added their arguments to the question of whether Google actually meets the evil-free standard it set for itself. Our readers were also quite divided, both on the morality of Google’s actions and the reason for their judgment. Some of those that see evil lurking in the heart of Mountain View object to Google’s actions to limit search results in China. Others accused it of sins including bullying, hypocrisy, and invasion of privacy. “EVIL!” declared George Burdell. “They are advertising company mining your data and flooding your eyeballs. Everything else is a trail of candy to get you into the store.” Some readers, taking the view that Google should not be condemned, challenged criticism of the company as “full of holes,” as Steve put it. And many praised the virtues of the company’s services. “Try living in a foreign country…. (Thailand)……no libraries, minimum access to publications/books/news. Google is a savior!” wrote John Oles. Many readers declared Google no different from any corporation in a capitalist economy. But some found that to be inherently evil; others did not. A smaller group saw merit in both arguments. “They’re not evil, but we need to keep an eye on them,” commented B. Mull. Dominik Pucek wrote, “Yes, Google is evil. But dammit, I like it!” Ultimately, this sort of ambivalence was the combined mood of Bits readers. Of the first 104 commenters who explicitly answered the question, 27 said Google violates its “don’t be evil” motto and 31 said it does not.