Why "Don’t Be Evil" Is Evil, and Why Google Isn’t So Bad

By Farhad Manjoo , written on March 24, 2012

From The News Desk

Early in 2000, a tiny but much-beloved search company held an employee meeting to figure out something that all successful firms feel they have to face at a certain point: What should we be about?

For most companies, the core-values conversation is a useless bit of corporate tedium that usually results a list of anodyne adjectives that most employees can’t remember, and that nobody would ever oppose. Microsoft’s core values favor “integrity, honesty, openness, personal excellence, constructive self-criticism, continual self-improvement and mutual respect.” That’s pretty similar to Procter & Gamble’s values—integrity, leadership, accountability, passion and trust—and, for that matter, Enron’s. (Communication, respect, integrity and excellence—hah!)

Google might have ended up with a similarly drab list were it not for Paul Buchheit. Google’s employee number 23, Buchheit was still years away from becoming a legend at the firm (he’d go on to create Gmail) when he was invited to participate in the values meeting. He’d come from a boring job at Intel and didn’t have patience for corporate jargon. As he later told Jessica Livingston for her book Founders at Work: Stories of Startups' Early Days, “I was trying to think of something that would be really different and not one of these usual ‘strive for excellence’ type of statements. I also wanted something that, once you put it in there, would be hard to take out.”

The three words Buchheit came up with would become the most well-known corporate values statement in the world, a central pillar in how we all think of Google—and, more importantly, how Google thinks of itself. The phrase is concise, unforgettable, and it seems to stake out novel moral ground for a corporation. Don’t Be Evil. How could anyone argue with that?

But Don’t Be Evil is a terrible way to go about marketing and running a company as dynamic as Google, and it’s long past time that the search company abandoned the idea as a way to define itself. One problem with Don’t Be Evil is that it’s uselessly vague. “Evil” is in the eye of the beholder—when you earn a userbase as large and devoted as Google’s, everything you do is bound to be considered evil by someone. Even worse, DBE is a negative formulation—it doesn’t tell Googlers what they should do, just what they shouldn’t. If “core values” are meant to serve any purpose at all, they’re to let executives and employees know the parameters of acceptable actions on the way toward fulfilling their corporate goals. Considered this way, Don’t Be Evil is worse than useless: It allows the company to commit pretty much any action short of mass genocide and still insist it’s acting for the greater good.

This week Gizmodo’s Mat Honan wrote a magisterial, must-read screed arguing that Google has lost its way. At the heart of his case is his argument that programs like Search Plus Your World and Google’s efforts to subvert the iPhone’s cookie settings have violated Google’s own definition of evil. He’s right about that. In 2000, Paul Buchheit came up with DBE in part to needle Google’s search-engine rivals who were then doing pretty scammy things, including routinely mixing less-than-relevant, sponsored links into their results. If Google still defines “evil” as monkeying with search results, it’s hard to see how Search Plus Your World—which, by default, promotes Google+ links over more relevant results from rival networks—jibes with DBE.

On the whole, though, I’m not convinced by Honan’s larger argument that Google’s recent actions should earn it our deep distrust. That’s mainly because nothing that Google has done is really so bad when compared to others in the tech industry. I’ve gone on record as hating Search Plus Your World. But I also hate the iOS App Store’s capricious, unfriendly restrictions, the ridiculous way that Apple went after rival advertising networks, the whole stupid business about in-app purchases, and the fact that I have to jump through hoops to use Google Voice on my iPhone. Similarly, I threw a tantrum when Facebook declared its social network to be a roach motel for your social graph—Mark Zuckerberg will let you import your contacts from Gmail, but don’t bother trying to get your contacts out. (And let’s all forget Beacon, shall we?) Meanwhile, how about the time Amazon deleted 1984 from people’s Kindles? And when I search for an iPad case on Amazon, why does Amazon show me a big ad for its Kindle app—how is that a relevant shopping result?

In other words Honan might be right that Google has violated its own definition of evil, but doesn’t it matter that every one of its rivals also routinely violates Google’s definition of evil? Wouldn’t that suggest that it’s the definition of “evil” that needs updating, rather than Google’s own behavior, which seems perfectly in line with that of its rivals? If you’re going to knock Google for its ethics, you’d have a hard time conducting transactions with any tech entity other than Wikipedia and Craigslist. You’d have an especially hard time explaining people’s crazy love for Apple.

The real problem that Honan has with Google isn’t that it has started to do stuff that bothers its users. It’s that Google has started to do stuff that bothers users in a way we aren’t used to—in a way that Don’t Be Evil falsely suggested it was above doing. By never claiming to be above evil, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon are free to act like normal companies whose efforts to optimize their own self-interest don’t arouse much suspicion. We expect Apple to play rough with others; we’d be surprised if it didn’t. But we don’t expect sharp elbows from Google. And now that it’s acting in new ways, we don’t know what to expect at all.

That’s why it’s time for the company to come up with some new way to define itself—if not for the benefit of its users, then for itself. Google is now in the most difficult transition in its history. It’s got a hard-charging new CEO who fears that the firm he founded is in danger of falling behind a host of merciless rivals. At Larry Page’s behest, Google has changed radically in the past year—it’s closed down dozens of superfluous products, it’s started a sprawling new social-networking initiative, and it’s moved to push all of its users into this new plan.

And I suspect that part of the reason we’re all so puzzled by the new Google is that we don’t understand the parameters under which it now operates. If Google’s old definition of evil no longer applies, what does? Many of the points in the firm’s philosophy document—“Ten things we know to be true”—are similarly outdated. Google has never spelled out what it’s willing to do—beyond avoiding some fairy-tale notion of evil—in order to win.

Of course, Google can’t forsake not being evil; as Buchheit intended, once you set that as the firm’s grounding philosophy, you can’t publicly revoke it. Still, Page can move to subtly deprecate DBE by putting forth a new, more restrictive and more clear-cut philosophy—perhaps something like Twitter’s, “Grow our business in a way that makes us proud.”

This might sound like a pointless exercise, but if promoted correctly, I think it could help the company stay true to itself as it makes the biggest change in its corporate life. A few weeks ago, after I excoriated Google and Apple for conspiring to keep down engineers' salaries through collusion, I spoke to a former Googler who explained why Eric Schmidt might have agreed to Steve Jobs’ no-poaching idea.

That kind of thing could only happen, the ex-Googler said, because no one around Schmidt was willing to stand up and say, This is wrong. It’s exactly in these small executive groups—groups where a firm’s decisions get made—that a strong, positive core value might make a difference. You can’t tell your boss that signing a no-poaching agreement would be evil, because it’s plainly not. But would it make you proud? That’s a better standard. Pride is something we all understand. Leave evil to storybooks.