Saying “Do no evil” excludes you from any serious conversation about Google

Kragen Javier Sitaker kragen at canonical.org
Thu Aug 18 03:37:01 EDT 2011


Google has had an unofficial motto for many years: “Don’t be evil.”
It came up as a joke during a meeting (including, among others, Paul
Buchheit and Amit Patel) seeking a mission statement.  A particular
Googler liked it and went around anonymously doodling it on
whiteboards until it became a permanent part of the culture.  Although
it was not originally intended for distribution outside the company,
it became known, and was explained in Google’s 2004 IPO documents.

Part of the humor of the slogan is that it shouldn’t need saying at
all.  It’s satisfied by having the tiniest modicum of ethical
achievement; almost nobody is evil according to the moral code they
aspire to live by, except, perhaps, for comic-book villains, Jeffrey
Dahmer, and certain pedophile priests.  The only reason it’s even
worth mentioning is that Google was born in a world dominated by
Microsoft and Doubleclick, which were generally agreed to actually be
evil, and Google aspired to do better.

“Do no evil” is a distortion.
-----------------------------

The slogan has always been a serious irritant to certain people ---
mostly, the most cynical, those who think “good” and “evil” are merely
hypocritical terms used by the powerful to conceal their pursuit of
their own interests; but perhaps there are some sincere people
irritated by it too, those who are disappointed by Google’s choices
and priorities.

Of those rankled by Google, a few have been so dishonest as to rewrite
the slogan as “Do no evil”.  This may appear to be a small difference,
but it’s not.  Almost none of us *are evil*, but every moral agent
does *do evil* from time to time.  Doing no evil is an impossible goal
except for the dead.  You’d have to be incorruptible and probably
omniscient.

Perhaps certain critics of Google would like to paint the company as a
hubristic, arrogant know-it-all.  But the ones who have a real case to
make don’t need to resort to lying about it, and the ones who are
lying about it probably don’t have a real case to make.

“You can make money without doing evil.”
----------------------------------------

Some critics might point to this quote, from [Ten things we know to be
true][], to show that the company really does think it can “do no
evil”.  I don’t think that’s what it means.  You can debate different
interpretations, but in context, I think it refers to avoiding *net*
evil, more evil than good, not avoiding the merest taint of evil.

[Ten things we know to be true]: http://www.google.com/about/corporate/company/tenthings.html

Summary
-------

“Do no evil” is an aspiration to godlike perfection.  “Don’t be evil”
is something anyone can do, and should.  The distinction between the
two could hardly be more pronounced.  Anyone who brings up “Do no
evil” as a supposed slogan of Google is trying to trick you because
telling the truth would undermine their points.

Conflicts of interest?
----------------------

I have never worked for Google and probably never will.  For ethical
reasons, I don’t keep my email in Gmail, even though it’s a pretty
good mail service.  Google is a big proprietary software vendor, even
though they’ve made important contributions to free software.  But
lots of my friends, family, and Burning Man campmates work at Google,
and even more have in the past.  I’ve eaten lunch at Google
headquarters any number of times.

In short, I don’t hate Google, but I don’t love it either.  But I want
whatever criticism it receives to be deserved.


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