The Ethics of Google


Evil is a pretty tough word to wrap your mind around. The term has been thrown around in the world’s most ancient texts, like the Bible. God : Devil :: Good : Evil. Classic. If something is good, it has some sort of affinity towards God. If it is evil, then it has an affinity towards the devil. If you aren’t religious though, you may substitute the word evil with “bad”, but the connotation between the two words is far different. Something that is bad is something unwanted, or undesirable. We don’t like bad. But something that is evil is not only bad, but also detestable. If you did a bad thing as a kid, you probably got a slap on the wrist. If you did an evil thing, you became infamous for your negativity, and you were made an outcast.

Google’s manifesto is ‘Don’t be evil,’ so how have they done? Consider not-evil (or the opposite of evil). Evil sits in the corner of a large opinion box consisting of good, okay, so-so, bad, terrible, nasty, etc. Following this reasoning, odds are that Google is not-evil.

In the past few years, Google has made some changes to their platform that have had a swirl of opinions attached to them, but do these changes sum to an evil judgment? Should Google be out-casted, called out, or closely investigated? Before we answer that question, a small primer on search would be useful:

Information and Accessibility

Google’s mission is simple: To make the world’s information organized and accessible to everyone. There are two aspects to this mission to focus on: information and accessibility. The Internet contributes to the vagueness of these terms. Information used to exist on a piece of paper, passed on from one person to another in confidence. It was a deliberate act. That information, in turn, was only accessible to those who possessed it. Possession, in turn, was quite obvious to determine: either they had the piece of paper on their person, or they did not. We lived in a black and white world, much like the color of the information we would transmit. When Google launched in the early 2000s, search became the key to making information accessible. If people could find the information, they could access it as well.

Humans have a remarkable desire to share, but the Internet was so large that it was difficult to determine what items to share more or less. The problem was that anything that needed a wider audience couldn’t be transmitted fast enough. Analogously, items that didn’t need attention got it anyway. Search engine providers sought to answer that problem by empowering website owners and information providers with a location to access their content. People only needed to know what they wanted vaguely, and the information was brought to them. Google took this a step further with PageRank, which made searches more intuitive by ranking them like academic journals rank paper influence: the more a website is referred/linked to, the website would bump to the top. In effect, Google defined importance: a page that is linked more ought to be one that people wish to be shared more. So, they bumped up that page’s ranking.  With the Internet, knowledge sharing became possible. With search, sharing became easier. With Google, sharing became smarter.

It’s a Little More Complicated

A share is anything created by an individual and then put on the Internet for others to view. This includes more salient items like photos, music, text, and news articles; also more nuanced things such as a like on Facebook, a tweet on Twitter, and an update on Google+. Social Media has confounded the idea of sharing information with others. There are many reasons for this, but a simple example is motivated by the question, “How important is a like?” Is it based on the number of people who viewed it? The number of friends the individual who did the liking (or who had their item liked)? There is no parallel metric like that of scholarly journals, and currently the powers that be (Microsoft, Google, Yahoo!) haven’t figured it out either.

The concept of ownership has also evolved far from just possessing the original piece of paper. The powers that be have recognized this, and have established some standards (e.g. Creative Commons), but more nuanced items don’t really have a place in those standards. Using the same motivation of the sharing issues, one could ask, “Who owns a like?” You may have committed the act of liking, but that was by clicking a button that was created by Facebook for your use. You look at Facebook’s ads, and Facebook lets you like what other people have to say.

You Should Care If They Are Evil

Google (and other search providers) have the responsibility to provide information that is more complicated to display in a way that respects the level of accessibility the owners desire. Since the beginning, the Internet has been a hub for sharing information with people. That information is held in an almost sacred light: I created this information for the goodness of others, and I want it shared respectfully. It seems fair that if I have information that a search engine has access to, it is their right to portray it in a way that respects the owners, given the confounds of sharing and ownership.

The issue lies in Google’s recent changes to how they handle the information you share:

  • Google’s widespread platform applications (Mail, Maps, Photos, etc) now all share information with each other. Email that you read/send on Gmail is shared and crawlable by search.
  • Google’s social network, Google+, dominates search results pages, trumping any information you may actually care about.

On top of this comes other privacy issues brought up before: search query handling, photo views, email’s created, advertisements shown… the list can be endless. (Check out your Google ‘dashboard’ to see how much the company knows about you!)

But, since we have no idea what ownership means or what happens when something is shared, we aren’t close to a judgment on the service just yet. On the one hand, Google’s promotion of its platform is competitive interest. On the other, the action tiptoes on anti-trust territory. Google’s placement of search results by your friends first may seem useful, since friends are a key source of information. But, Google may be too far-reaching with the platform if we ourselves are befuddled on the idea of information created by friends as well.

Evil is a grey area of judgment that is applied to picking an apple from the golden tree to being the leader of the Holocaust. While Google’s actions may exist partially in this area, Google may also be doing well given their intent. Further still, Google may simply have no knowledge of what good is, since human beings may not quite understand that either.


Tarun Gangwani is a masters student in the human-computer interaction program (HCI/d) at Indiana University. His background is in cognitive science, researching memory and language acquisition. He has 10 years of strategic consulting experience, including 4 years of management in technical consulting with University Information Technology Services. In June 2011, he co-founded Weekly Download (LLC), a site that explores emerging tech trends and discussions. The site’s podcast has over 10000 downloads on iTunes.


2 thoughts on “The Ethics of Google

  1. Very interesting post, Tarun. On some level, I agree; I find it difficult to label any entity as “evil”. That being said, here’s an interesting letter that is being passed around via Facebook (not the most credible source) that nonetheless offers some interesting points. Apparently, it was written by a former Google employee:

    “Why I am leaving Google after 14 years”

    Dear BCC’d friend and Google Employee,

    I’ve been a long time admirer of Google — one of my most cherished artifacts has been a pair of Google boxer underwear sporting “I’m Feeling Lucky” that I was gifted in 1999 by an early Googler. I’ve eagerly signed up for every service offered by Google. I’ve long rooted for a company I felt held the same values as I, and promoted others to adopt. Unfortunately this has changed, I’m a fan no longer.

    If you’re not aware Google’s been rapidly degrading the privacy of their users and sliding into unethical business practices, and it’s exceeded my threshold of what I’ll accept as a citizen of the internet. I’ve begun the process of removing myself from Google’s services, and now actively consider Google an enemy of the Internet and humanity at large. As an employee of Google, I hold you (partially) personally responsible for the actions of your colleagues.

    Your slide into evil has many facets, and you face a great challenge in restoring my confidence. I hope you will recognize the legitimacy of these concerns, and will champion freedom and change within your organization. The EFF’s positions largely reflect mine, I ask you to read a recent open letter and engage in debate with your colleagues on what the ethical route may be.

    “Earlier today, the Wall Street Journal published evidence that Google has been circumventing the privacy settings of Safari and iPhone users, tracking them on non-Google sites despite Apple’s default settings, which were intended to prevent such tracking.”

    I’m also deeply upset with Google’s inappropriate claims being humanitarian for their own commercial benefit. The Google MapMaker product asks those affected by natural disaster, poverty, and development to map their communities, claiming humanitarian intentions and the backing organizations such as the World Bank, the United Nations, and the governments of nations affected by said disasters.

    However, the data is only usable by Google, and there’s no way for users to get their contributions back out for use outside Google’s products. This continues the cycle of oppression rich technologically advanced societies have over developing countries, and it’s unethical. Google is not being a good custodian of publicly generated resources, and sets the stage for commercial domination on the backs of those unfortunate enough to not to understand the legal consequences of their good will contributions. Google needs to open up licensing in and around disasters and development and be a better citizen of these environments.

    You can read a short overview of the Google MapMaker issue here:

    The offending terms: Map Maker contributors grant Google a “… perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive license to reproduce, adapt, modify, translate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display, distribute, and create derivative works of the User Submission”.”

    You’ve probably heard enough of the Google+ Pseudonym issue, so I wont go into it in depth, except to mention the issue hasn’t been resolved. Google’s solution still does not allow true anonymous contributions to the internet, a critical need in today’s oppressive environments. I’ve had friends and colleagues kidnapped and killed by repressive governments who monitor the internet for dissenting citizens. Until we live in a world of peace Google needs to allow anonymous online interactions, no questions asked.

    There are many more examples, but this e mail grows long. I’m not even going to get into your recent removal of ‘opt out’ from your products.

    Gmail creator Paul Buchheit said of the “Don’t Be Evil” corporate motto it’s “…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.” You are now the exploiters of your users, and I hope you’re feel shame in your participation.

    All is not lost, and I hope things get better. Please carefully consider the actions of your organization, and move forward with more consideration for those who are less fortunate. While you will not see me on your services any longer, and I’ll do everything I can to convince others to leave, there are still many who trust you with their online and real lives.

    -.- .— -…. .— –.- –.-

    Todd Huffman

    Google Circumvents Safari Privacy Protections – This is Why We Need Do Not Track | Electronic Fronti
    Earlier today, the Wall Street Journal published evidence that Google has been circumventing the privacy settings of Safari and iPhone users, tracking them on non-Google sites despite Apple’s default settings, which were intended to prevent such tracking.

  2. Indeed, this letter seems to captiualize many of the growing concerns with Google’s recent decisions in expanding their service. All the while, these expansions serve to provide some benefit and some cost, the lifeblood of most business ventures.

    Considering any Google employee responsible for the actions that have taken place would be a useless gesture — Google has prided themselves as a massive tree of command, starting from the C level into the SVP level. Most of the high level decsions mentioned likely take place there. If any responsibility should be taken, that burden belongs to those at the strategic level.

    At the core, most of the decisions Google has made seem to make sense. Again, reminding yourself of the Google’s mission, all of these initiatves essentially do just that. MapMaker serves as a way of organizing disaster related information for public use. Going around cookie caching and the other “exploits” discovered served as a way to make it easier to promote content with the +1 feature. Not allowing psuedonyms makes the Internet more personal and adds a level of detail to the increasingly semantic/social web. From Google’s point of view, the tradeoff of certain privacy concerns is worth making.

    To stress my post further, the Internet and those responsible for moving content through it (Facebook, Google, Apple, etc.) are still trying to come up with a collective definition of what is right and wrong. The game is understanding evil first, before committing to play against it. Every evil action has an antymonous good action — one that brings balance to that evil. Now, consider if Google had not made some of their more recent decisions like the ones outlined above. Nevertheless, there would be countless more actions that are “evil” to someone: remembering searches made and autocompleting them, indexing some images to the forefront vs. others, providing directions to swim across the Pacific… There is a fine line between what is truely evil and what we have yet to understand.

    So, instead of being upset with Google on committing evil, there should be a disdain more towards the overall Internet and bigger companies along with Google. As denizens of the Internet, we have the responsibility to help make these definitions clear… and we do that everyday with conversations like the above. Thank you for posting this letter.

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