The Curse of 'Don’t Be Evil'

So it’s official: By merging its various privacy policies into one master policy that permits it to intermingle the things it knows about you, Google has become evil. Or at least that's the stance of Gizmodo's Mat Honan, who isn't alone in his furor:

Honan’s declaration of evil is a riff on Google’s famous unofficial motto, “Don’t be evil,” which was apparently proposed by staffers Paul Buchheit and Amit Patel at a 2001 meeting. Google continues to saying that not being evil is one of its core principles to this day. So the fact that Honan and others are saying that the company has finally crossed an ethical line into evilhood is a unique, sad moment in Google history.

Except…

People have been accusing Google of being evil–or at least wondering whether it has become so–for almost as long as Google has been claiming that it isn’t evil. I can’t lay my hands on any examples from 2001 or 2002, but it became a hot topic in 2003 and has never let up.

Consider these pieces of evidence (one for each year!).

Josh McHugh in Wired, January 2003:

Andrew Orlowski, The Register, April 2004:

Preston Gralla on Windows DevCenter, August 2005:

Adam Penenberg in Mother Jones, October 2006:

Mike Masnick on Techdirt, April 2007:

Saul Hansell onNYTimes.com, November 2008:

&

Edward Cone onCIO Insight, October 2009:

Adam Green on theThe Huffington Post, August 2010:

Robert X. Cringely, InfoWorld, August 2011:

At first, back when Google was largely uncontroversial, “Don’t be evil” seemed like it was a marketing masterstroke. If Google said it wasn’t evil, people assumed, it wasn’t evil.

Overall, though, I think it’s been an albatross for the company. By being holier-than-thou, it practically demanded that the world hold it to a higher standard. Maybe a standard that it’s impossible for a large public company to maintain. (If it were Yahoo making these privacy changes, nobody would care.)

Now Google can’t ever backpedal on its promise. Whether it’s tweaking its privacy policies in ways that might bolster advertising, or promoting Google+ in Google search results, it’s going to be on the defensive forever.

No, Google isn’t evil. But it is at least as prone to human frailties as any other entity. And thinking that it would be a good idea to declare itself as more moral than other companies is Exhibit A.

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