“Don’t be evil”

The above, famously, is Google’s motto. When I first saw it, it seemed like an embodiment of the ways in which Google differs from other large corporations. They are involved in charitable works, in areas including infectious disease and renewable energy. Furthermore, they give away most of their products, getting the financing from those famous automatic ads.

On further reflection, however, “Don’t be evil” isn’t some lofty, laudible goal we should applaud Google for having. Rather, it is the absolute minimum required of them, given just how much of our personal information they have acquired. Think about GMail: many of us have tens of thousands of messages, many of them highly personal, entrusted unencrypted to Google’s servers. If they were evil – or even a few of their employees were – they could embarass or blackmail an enormous number of people. What Google has is, in many cases, far more intimate than what sites like Facebook do. Facebook may have some private messages to your friends, but Google is likely to have financial information, medical test results, photos you would never put on Facebook, etc.

Now, Google has incorporated a very useful phone calling system into GMail. Install a plugin, and you can make free calls to anywhere in Canada and the United States. In my limited experience, it seems to work better than SkypeOut, while being free to boot. Of course, it is another example where we really need to trust Google to behave ethically. For Google Voice, they already developed algorithms to convert spoken words into transcribed text. Users of their phone service need to trust that their conversations are not being archived or – if they are – that the transcripts will not be used in any nefarious ways.

In short, Google must avoid being evil not out of benevolence, but because their whole business model requires people to view them that way. So far, their products have been remarkably empowering for a huge number of people (any other sort of email seems deeply inferior, after using GMail). If they are going to maintian the trust of users, however, they are going to need to avoid privacy disasters, or at least keep them on a pretty minor scale, like when Google Buzz abruptly let all your friends know who else you are in contact with.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

43 thoughts on ““Don’t be evil””

  1. “On further reflection, however, “Don’t be evil” isn’t some lofty, laudible goal we should applaud Google for having. Rather, it is the absolute minimum required of them, given just how much of our personal information they have acquired.”

    I understand your point here – that trust is deeply required for their business model. However, I wish you’d also said:

    “Don’t be evil” isn’t some lofty, laudible goal we should applaud Google for having. Rather, it is the absolute minimum required of them”

    If we understand “evil” actions to be morally wrong, then it simply follows from the notion of “evil” itself that Google should not be evil, nor should any person, group or organization “be evil”.

    What I find disturbing about the “don’t be evil” motto is the idea that not being evil, even if done for non pragmatic purposes, is somehow reason enough for moral approbation. Not being evil is not rising above an ethical standard, it is simply meeting it. If the average organization fails to meet the basic ethical standard then rather than glorifying google, we should work to change the basic structures which make “evil” the pragmatic business plan for the average business.

  2. I really wish GMail was encrypted – at least enough to make large scale data mining computationally impractical.

    Of course, that would cut Google off from a lot of potentially lucrative information.

  3. I’m curious to know how you know that gmails are stored in plain text on Google’s servers? I’m not saying they are or aren’t, I’m just wondering if you’ve researched that. The transmission of the emails from their servers to your computers is encrypted via SSL.

  4. Lavabit and Hushmail store emails in an encrypted format, but are much less capable and convenient than GMail. Also, those companies will turn over unencrypted emails and perhaps encryption keys to the government.

    If you want real security, you need to do the encryption yourself and make sure you don’t keep the key stored anywhere accessible (including in operating system temporary files).

  5. It is an interesting motto indeed. I have a kind of Orwellian vision of all this personal information floating about in electronic space and some grinning Big Brother type sorting it into categories to be used at a later time. It is just a picture that has come into my head now so it has not been keeping me up at night.

  6. ” I have a kind of Orwellian vision of all this personal information floating about in electronic space and some grinning Big Brother type sorting it into categories to be used at a later time.”

    Orwell’s personal vision seemed to be that no central “big brother” spying institution is necessary in order to empty the public sphere of free thought and discussion. The literati and powerful institutions are happy to prevent themselves from committing thought-crime:

    “Any fairminded person with journalistic experience will admit that during this war official censorship has not been particularly irksome. We have not been subjected to the kind of totalitarian ‘co-ordination’ that it might have been reasonable to expect. The press has some justified grievances, but on the whole the Government has behaved well and has been surprisingly tolerant of minority opinions. The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary. Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban.”

    “It is important to distinguish between the kind of censorship that the English literary intelligentsia voluntarily impose upon themselves, and the censorship that can sometimes be enforced by pressure groups. Notoriously, certain topics cannot be discussed because of ‘vested interests’…[E.g.] Any actor can tell you that a play or film which attacks or makes fun of the Catholic Church is liable to be boycotted in the press and will probably be a failure. But this kind of thing is harmless, or at least it is understandable. Any large organization will look after its own interests as best it can, and overt propaganda is not a thing to object to…..What is disquieting is that where the USSR and its policies are concerned one cannot expect intelligent criticism or even, in many cases, plain honesty from Liberal writers and journalists who are under no direct pressure to falsify their opinions. Stalin is sacrosanct and certain aspects of his policy must not be seriously discussed. This rule has been almost universally observed since 1941, but it had operated, to a greater extent than is sometimes realized, for ten years earlier than that. ”

    “It is important to realize that the current Russomania is only a symptom of the general weakening of the western liberal tradition.”


  7. People were very strongly controlled by institutions. Remember the Ministry where all the information was stored and also language was being eliminated. Also, weren’t the people continuously watched on a screen?

  8. I think what “don’t be evil” means here is “don’t be as exclusively self-interested as we expect corporations to be.” It’s a kind of ‘soft’ evil, more about selfishness than about wickedness, cruelty, or exploitation.

    Whereas other firms are expected to seek their own advantage primarily, we expect to be partners with Google. And they deliver on that, with excellent services from search to email to streaming video.

  9. Google’s priority inbox aims to conquer e-mail overload
    By Maggie Shiels Technology reporter, BBC News, Silicon Valley

    Google has updated Gmail with a feature that aims to reduce information overload in e-mail inboxes.

    Called priority inbox it automatically grades e-mail into four categories: important, important and unread, starred items and everything else.

    Experts believe less time sifting through e-mail will make people more productive.

    Google said the product acts like your “personal assistant helping you focus on the messages that matter”.

    “There are a lot of signals in any message that indicate importance,” Keith Coleman, Gmail director told BBC News.

    “Basic indicators include if this message is from someone you write to a lot or reply to a lot. Another category is terms – if the word Viagra is in the message, it is indicative of junk mail. And a third factor is something known as static features. That is if the message has been sent to you directly or to you and other people or a list of people.”

  10. Paul Buchheit, one of the Google employees who suggested the informal slogan, specifically argued that it was intended to distinguish Google from competitors. He said it was: “also a bit of a jab at a lot of the other companies, especially our competitors, who at the time, in our opinion, were kind of exploiting the users to some extent.”

  11. “I think what “don’t be evil” means here is “don’t be as exclusively self-interested as we expect corporations to be.” It’s a kind of ‘soft’ evil, more about selfishness than about wickedness, cruelty, or exploitation.”

    So, do you think the selfish actions of corporations is “soft evil”? What about all the corporations that are, for good selfish reasons, funding climate denial public relations campaigns? Is that not wicked, cruel or exploitative?

  12. :/ maybe have to try out these free phone calls… have got some friends on the other side of the big lake ;)

    .. it’s a shame – they are not available in Europe :(

  13. What about all the corporations that are, for good selfish reasons, funding climate denial public relations campaigns? Is that not wicked, cruel or exploitative?

    That may also be outside the bounds of acceptable corporate conduct. My main point in this post is that the amount of personal information Google possesses means they are in a special category, when it comes to the level of good conduct expected.

  14. Google agreed to settle charges brought by America’s Federal Trade Commission that it had used “deceptive tactics” and “violated its own privacy promises” when it set up Google Buzz last year. Google received thousands of complaints when it launched its social network from users whose e-mail contacts were shared publicly. The FTC instructed Google to implement a privacy programme to protect consumers’ information, the first time it has issued such an order, and said Google would be subject to privacy audits for the next 20 years.

  15. Google on Wednesday disclosed that a cyberattack originating in China resulted in the breach of the Gmail accounts of hundreds of high-profile individuals in several nations.

    The disclosure came a day after military officials in the U.S. and United Kingdom for the first time began publicly acknowledging that nation-sponsored cyberattacks can be an act of war. It also follows similar disclosures and news reports about computer break-ins at major defense contractors.

    “Hackers and nation states are upping their game,” says Dave Jevans, chairman of security firm IronKey. “These attacks are difficult to monitor and control.”

    It’s well known that China and Russia have engaged in cyberespionage for decades, targeting Western governments and corporations. Traditionally, big agencies and companies have been loath to disclose breaches.

    Cyberspying has intensified with the extensive use of the Internet. “It’s a lot easier to hack into a system than it is to tap a phone line or break into an office and take pictures,” says Harry Sverdlove, chief technology officer at security firm Bit9.

  16. Pingback: What Google knows
  17. “I’m tired of building my sandcastles on Google’s beachfront. I’ve moved off Docs, Plus, and Analytics, so now it’s time to host my own email servers. What are the best self-host open-source email solutions available? I’m looking for ‘the full stack’ — including a Gmail-competitive web GUI — and don’t mind getting my hands dirty to set it up. I leverage most of Gmail’s features, including multi-domain support, and fetching from remote POP/IMAP servers. Bonus points: Since I’m a hobbyist, not a sysadmin, and I normally outsource my mail servers, what new security considerations do I need to make in managing these services?”

  18. The way Google is shamelessly exploiting its search engine to promote Google+ is at least a bit evil:

    This is just the sort of thing that got Microsoft in so much hot water.

  19. I can’t decide if I think this is evil or not. They’re using their free service to inform you of another of their free services. There are competing search engines and social networking sites that people can easily access.

    I’m not exactly familiar with the ins and outs of the antitrust/internet explorer issue, but the fact windows is a paid product seems to be a big differentiator.

  20. Google’s services are free for the end user, but still highly profitable. That means the user audience is the product being sold to advertisers.

    Perhaps what Google is doing is akin to when one free television channel provides free advertising for a new channel owned by the same company.

  21. I think Google has encroached on their don’t be evil mantra in other ways: Buying Motorola seems like they could start monopolizing and closing the open source Android ecosystem they created.

    Also, although they generally have fought against censorship and for net neutrality there are instances of them selling out. I worry about their direction now that Eric Schmidt has left, him being generally not evil.

  22. I am getting seriously creeped out by Google these days. They are demanding that new GMail users join Google+ (which requires that you provide your real name). They are aggressively pushing Google+ though their other products, such as with the annoying ‘+You’ button now appearing on the main Google page. There is also the creepy intermeshing of personal information and search results.

    Today I deleted Google Buzz and my Google public profile. Hopefully, that will keep Google’s creeping and entirely unwanted social integration at bay for now.

    I think GMail is amazing and I would hate to lose its capabilities. That being said, if Google forces me to choose between the convenience of GMail and giving in to their creepy anticompetitive/antiprivacy behaviour, I will go back to storing mail on my hard drive.

  23. Google announces privacy settings change across products, users can’t opt out

    Google said Tuesday it will require users to allow the company to follow their activities across e-mail, search, YouTube and other services, a radical shift in strategy that is expected to invite greater scrutiny of its privacy and competitive practices.

    The information will enable Google to develop a fuller picture of how people use its growing empire of Web sites. Consumers will have no choice but to accept the changes.

    The policy will take effect March 1 and will also impact Android mobile phone users, who are required to log-in to Google accounts when they activate their phones.

  24. Google and online privacy

    A cookie monster?

    WHEN Google announced recently that it intended to combine data about users of its various services into single profiles that would help it to better target ads and services at them, it provoked an outcry from privacy groups. Now the company is under fire once again. Google stands accused of deliberately circumventing barriers in Apple’s Safari web browser designed to block it and other firms from tracking users as they surf the web.

    The fuss blew up after a report in The Wall Street Journal revealed that an independent researcher, Jonathan Mayer, had uncovered evidence that Google and several advertising companies, including Vibrant Media and the Media Innovation Group, had found a way around Safari’s defences. Mr Mayer has said that millions of people may have been unknowingly affected by their actions. After being contacted by the newspaper about this, Google promptly disabled the code that led to the installation of its offending “cookies”—small pieces of text that help identify users as they load pages on sites and return for subsequent visits—in the popular browser.

    Google says the tracking that occurred was not intentional and rejects claims that its actions breached people’s privacy. It points out that although Safari blocks third-party cookies, it enables features such as Facebook “Like” buttons that allow people to signal things that interest them to their pals. Last year—it will not say exactly when—Google deployed a cookie that created a temporary communication link between its servers and Safari when it was triggered. This allowed it to tell whether folk using the browser were also signed into Google and had opted to highlight stuff that caught their attention while surfing. It could then ensure that this information was transmitted back to the relevant Google service.

  25. How to Remove Your Google Search History Before Google’s New Privacy Policy Takes Effect

    On March 1st, Google will implement its new, unified privacy policy, which will affect data Google has collected on you prior to March 1st as well as data it collects on you in the future. Until now, your Google Web History (your Google searches and sites visited) was cordoned off from Google’s other products. This protection was especially important because search data can reveal particularly sensitive information about you, including facts about your location, interests, age, sexual orientation, religion, health concerns, and more. If you want to keep Google from combining your Web History with the data they have gathered about you in their other products, such as YouTube or Google Plus, you may want to remove all items from your Web History and stop your Web History from being recorded in the future.

  26. Google Agrees to ‘Do-Not-Track’ Button in Browser

    Google Inc. (GOOG) will allow a “do-not- track” button to be embedded in its Web browser, letting users restrict the amount of data that can be collected about them.

    The world’s most popular search engine will join with other Web companies to support the anti-tracking initiative, which prevents an individual’s browsing history from being used to tailor ads, according to an e-mailed statement today.

    “We’re pleased to join a broad industry agreement to respect the ‘do-not-track’ header in a consistent and meaningful way that offers users choice and clearly explained browser controls,” Google Senior Vice President of Advertising Susan Wojcicki said in the statement.

  27. Setting all my privacy worries aside, it cannot be denied that Google makes some amazing products. There’s just nothing like GMail or YouTube or Google Maps. There are other websites and programs that perform similar functions, but none that I have encountered that work as well.

  28. Chinese hackers who breached Google gained access to sensitive data, U.S. officials say

    Chinese hackers who breached Google’s servers several years ago gained access to a sensitive database with years’ worth of information about U.S. surveillance targets, according to current and former government officials.

    The breach appears to have been aimed at unearthing the identities of Chinese intelligence operatives in the United States who may have been under surveillance by American law enforcement agencies.

    It’s unclear how much the hackers were able to discover. But former U.S. officials familiar with the breach said the Chinese stood to gain valuable intelligence. The database included information about court orders authorizing surveillance — orders that could have signaled active espionage investigations into Chinese agents who maintained e-mail accounts through Google’s Gmail service.

    “Knowing that you were subjects of an investigation allows them to take steps to destroy information, get people out of the country,” said one former official, who, like others interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a highly sensitive matter. The official said the Chinese could also have sought to deceive U.S. intelligence officials by conveying false or misleading information.

  29. In her telling, Ms Wiener, a sociology major who had the misfortune to graduate into the global financial crisis, starts her professional career as an assistant to a literary agent in New York. Tired of being privileged yet “downwardly mobile”, she joins a tech startup on the east coast, flubs it, but fails upwards to a better-paid job in San Francisco. Once there she observes first-hand the absurdities and extravagances of the industry. One of her employers is a meritocracy-obsessed cult with a name-your-own-salary policy that leads to an enormous gender pay gap. It marks its first round of venture-capital funding by building an exact replica of the Oval Office.

    Another outfit unironically releases a sinister feature called Addiction which, as Ms Wiener ghostwrites in the blog post announcing it, “allows companies to see how embedded they are into other people’s lives”. She is at her best when describing the carelessness that would give the tech industry its well-deserved reputation for hubris. “Don’t be evil” is a blithe motto if the definition of “evil” is unexamined.

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