Maybe you saw the headlines that Google and YouTube had to pay a fine, paltry for them, for collecting kids’ personal information. From the headline, I didn’t think it seemed like such a big deal, as much as I value privacy, as much as I avoid Google, and as much as I value protecting helpless people from predatory entities. But reading the article, I saw how much they used the information to promote and enrich themselves.
I couldn’t help sharing here what I posted on a message board on the topic:
Their meetings must be like Phillip Morris or whatever it’s called now:
“This advertising method work great! What other markets can we apply it to?”
“There is this a market it works even better on, and keeps them coming back for decades.”
“Decades? Great! Let’s do it.”
“Well, that market is kids. Are you sure we should?”
“Hmm… didn’t think of that. Well, too late to stop now. Besides, the government set up rules that when you do it, you just pay a fine. It’s like a toll road. We’ll follow their rules and everything will be fine.”
“It’s decided then. Project Kids is on.”
When some people in Google saw the temptation for such outcomes, they proposed publicly committing to avoid being evil. When push came to shove, they backed down on the public commitment.
With each situation, they can choose to return to their public commitment or what they’re doing now.
They seem to pick this option many times and the public commitment keeps getting relegated to more minor places. Last I heard “Don’t be evil” was buried in an HR document.
The shareholders are happy, though, right?
I wrote in my book Initiative about Google:
Did you ever wonder why Google adopted the motto â€œDon’t be evil?â€
A company with no incentive to do something people might consider evil wouldn’t need to say it. Saying it suggests that Google feels that incentive. Not just anyone said it. The founders stated it in the company’s IPO prospectus.
â€œWhat could be evil about searching?â€ you might ask. â€œSearching only helps people find what they’re looking for, right?â€
Your searches tell Google what you want, which advertisers value and pay for. Google’s founders originally wanted to help people find things, which alone isn’t profitable. Investors want profit, so they influenced Google to change.
Whatever its founders’ intent, to an accountant, Google became an advertising media company. Search costs them money. Ads and selling your data make money.
Since advertisers pay more the more they know about you, and searching reveals personal, often private, details, Google’s employees sensed the incentive to learn about and store people’s personal information and to profit from it. Hence, â€œDon’t be evil.â€
Such results aren’t inevitable. Wikipedia and Craig’s List could have shifted their focus from the communities they served to advertisers but chose not to. Google’s executives became richer than Wikipedia’s and Craig’s List’s, but also had to testify to Congress on contributing to undermine the United States’ democratic process, antitrust violations, and more that many might consider evil. Perhaps as a result, Google keeps deprecating its use of the phrase, now almost a footnote in its code of conduct.
I’m not suggesting right or wrong in Google’s case, only pointing out that many companies face such dilemmas and investment often limits founders’ ability to act on their values. Google’s search functionality seems as superior to its competition as Wikipedia’s and Craig’s List’s functionality to theirs. I wonder if Google’s founders wonder if they could have served the world as effectively as Wikipedia and Craig’s List without the problems that led to testifying before Congress. Craig’s List’s Craig Newmark is still reported to be a billionaire. (For what it’s worth, I search with DuckDuckGo.com.)