C. Warren Axelrod

Being Evil versus Doing Harm

Mea culpa. …. Craig Heath rightly states that the Google motto is “Don’t be evil” and not “Do no harm,” as I had misquoted in my column “Google Doing Harm.” Unfortunately I was guilty of taking my quote from another Web posting rather than from an “authoritative source,” as Mr. Heath did.

Mr. Heath also points out that “not being evil” and “doing no harm” are not the same. They certainly are not.

I think that it is well worth discussing the differences between “being” and “doing” and “evil” and “harm” as they provide a fair amount of insight into why we may continue to be subjected to personal abuses by the Google juggernaut. There may be a fair number of people who might have evil thoughts, such as of committing murder, but it is only if they attempt the act that they are seen to be evil. There are others who may kill as part of their job, such as the military, but are not evil. And there are yet others who kill accidentally and also may not be evil. I happen to think that the Googles and Facebooks of the world fall into this last category. They are not evil, but they do harm.

If we go to Google’s Investor Relations site, which Mr. Heath kindly pointed us to in his comment, at http://investor.google.com/conduct.html, we read the following explanation of their motto:

“‘Don’t be evil.’ Googlers generally apply those words to how we serve our users. But ‘Don’t be evil’ is much more than that. Yes, it’s about providing our users unbiased access to information, focusing on their needs and giving them the best products and services that we can. But it’s also about doing the right thing more generally – following the law, acting honorably and treating each other with respect.

The Google Code of Conduct is one of the ways we put “Don’t be evil” into practice. It’s built around the recognition that everything we do in connection with our work at Google will be, and should be, measured against the highest possible standards of ethical business conduct. We set the bar that high for practical as well as aspirational reasons: We hire great people who work hard to build great products, and it’s essential that we build an environment of trust – among ourselves and with our users. That trust and mutual respect underlie our success, and we need to earn it every day.”

2 Comments

  1. Scott Wright Dec 22, 2008 at 6:42 am | Permalink

    Yes, Google and Facebook should be held to high standards, relative to “doing no evil”. However, when it comes to accountability, I think it becomes pretty subjective, even to an outsider. It’s not always obvious how taking one action may hurt any particular individual. Is it really supposed to be interpreted as “Do no evil to any body”, or “Do no evil to the masses?” Isn’t there a difference, and is it possible to assess what it means? How do you hold anyone accountable to such a vague notion?

    I think, if we’re talking about privacy, we should be looking at their privacy policy and holding them to what they commit to there. At least it’s got a chance of addressing things from a single perspective.

  2. Craig Heath Dec 22, 2008 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    I’m flattered that my comment actually caused an article! (oh, and no need to be formal, you can call me Craig :-))

    I think there are a number of interesting differences in the two versions of the motto. At its simplest, the easiest way to do no harm is to do nothing, or slightly more ambitiously to do some things but very carefully so that no one is harmed by them (this latter course of action I think is closest to the Hippocratic Oath that you mentioned). That clearly isn’t Google’s style – they seem to have a mission to change the world, and to do it as quickly as possible. What matters to them is not particularly whether some parties are harmed, but whether Google’s intentions are good (“evil” vs “harm” is I think about intention vs effects). It may be that the “perpetual beta” nature of many of their services is a reflection of that – if it sounds like a good idea, get it out there and if it goes wrong fix it later…

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