Don't Be Evil, Google

"Don’t be evil" — That’s Google’s much-touted corporate motto.

"Be evil; we don’t mind" — That’s the message Google is sending to China’s ruthless Communist Party.

So why are Google and China now in cahoots? First the news, then the analysis:

The News:

China is the world leader in government censorship of the Internet, with all online traffic passing through state-controlled gateways. When Chinese children look up material on human rights, Tibet, Taiwan, or the Tiananmen Square protest (and as of today perhaps this blog), Big Brother hopes their ignorance will be bliss. Internet surfers in China who search cautiously for websites like Voice of America and BBC will confront Big Brother blocks. Unsatisfied with merely censoring public sites, the government scans personal e-mails for subversive language with the efficient help of its Internet Propaganda Management Department.

China is already the world’s second largest Internet market with 100,000,000 regular users. But with a population of more than a billion, the shared customer base is expected to explode over the next decade. Google doesn’t want to be left out in the cold. Fair enough. But in doing so, it may have compromised its dearest principle of not doing "evil."

The self-proclaimed "Don’t be evil" company launched its service in China on January 25, agreeing to censor search results to fit the Chinese government’s all-encompassing Internet restrictions. Try searching for "democracy" on the newly unveiled (Google server in China) and 6 million fewer results show up than on a similar search run on servers in the United States in the Chinese-language version.

The plot thickened this past weekend when U.S. District Judge James Ware required Google to comply partly with the U.S. government’s subpoena of some 50,000 Web addresses and 5,000 random search requests. The Justice Department had asked AOL, MSN, Yahoo, and Google for web-search data to help them in a study (in preparation for a civil case in Pennsylvania) of how to keep Internet pornography out of the hands of children. Of the four companies, only Google refused. They did so on the grounds that supplying information to the government would violate the ethics of privacy rights. Are we dealing with a double standard?

Now, the Analysis:

What does Google mean by "Don’t be evil?" The informal corporate motto was established by the company’s co-founder, Sergey Brin. According to Brin’s philosophy, corporations should shun maximizing short-term profits with actions that destroy long-term brand image and competitive position. By building a "Don't be evil" culture, Google establishes a principle for decision-making that can enhance its image and the trust of its customers. According to Mr. Brin’s theory, good image and customer trust outweigh short-term gains that otherwise could be derived from violating the "Don't be evil" principles.

My hat goes off to Mr. Brin. I like that way of thinking. He says you can be ethical and still make money, knocking down an artificial wall so often built between the two. In fact, he goes a step further, saying being ethical is better for long-term business viability than the wide and easy road of dirty money. Once again, I agree. My hat stays off still longer when I consider his acknowledgment that evil exists and that some business decisions are in and of themselves bad, regardless of one’s best intentions.

But I must admit, I’m a bit concerned. In Google’s relationship with China, Mr. Brin and his co-executives have lost their way. Good principles help us make good decisions, but they only work if they are applied. The glitter of gold has always been seductive, but is it really worth selling the corporate soul?

A Humble Suggestion:

Don’t be evil, Google. Apply your principle. Your corporate growth is slowing and Wall Street is spooked. Don’t put short-term profits before your image and our trust. Religious tolerance, freedom of the press, historical accuracy, those are things that don’t belong to you. They belong to all of us. We ask you not to barter with what is not exclusively yours.

Otherwise, your signal to the Communist leaders of our Chinese friends is clear: "Be evil, we don’t mind."

And to the readers, what do you think? Write to me at

God bless, Father Jonathan

P.S. In a future blog (maybe Wednesday) I will take our discussion one step further. We will pose the question of whether we can ever tolerate evil in order to seek a greater good. The answer is yes. But when does that principle apply? Some would say Google’s decision is one obvious example, because in the long run its presence will open the Chinese to the West and its ideals. I happen to disagree. I’ll explain why.

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