Don’t be evil

That is the motto of Google, the mega-bucks search engine corporation.  According to a book I’ve just finished, a lot of people think the motto reflects the company’s arrogance.  The Google self-image, however, is idealistic:  they claim to foster freedom to innovate, avoid top-down thinking, and never allow dollars to pollute their search results.  It’s all about technology, they say.  It’s all in the magic algorithms.

After much agonizing, Google has entered the Chinese market, having buckled to the Chinese government’s demand that search results be filtered to keep out politically undesirable information.  This, of course, has generated much jeering at Google, many ironic twists on the company motto (“Don’t be evil more than necessary”).

As with all thing touching China and U.S. telecommunications companies, Rebecca MacKinnon at RConversation has the best angle.  She writes:  “What we do know at this time is that Google seems to be trying to minimize its evilness in several ways,” which are described at her site.

“Minimize evil” would be a serious moral proposition.  What Google has done in China is wrong.  The company defines its mission as organizing the world’s information.  Truckling under to dictators who seem terrified of information is evil, particularly when done for money.  But what would be the greatest evil:  staying out or collaborating with the Chinese Communist mafia?  MacKinnon writes that Google will censor search returns on Taiwan, Tibet, and Falung Gong.  It will openly acknowledge this censorship.  Will nothing else be censored?  The minimizing of Google’s evil hangs on the answer to this question.

Suppose North Korea or Cuba asked a foreign company to censor a handful of search returns but otherwise allowed access to the Web.  The evil of collaboration with despotism would be offset by the freedom to access the world’s information provided to captive populations.  If Google’s China deal follows this pattern, it would be morally defensible.

Why?  Because it would be the lesser of two evils.  Idealism is wonderful, but only inside one’s head.  In the world, hard choices must be made.  Google wants to make lots of money, but also wants to make all information available everywhere — and it wants to do both things while feeling the warm glow of righteousness.  That isn’t arrogant.  It’s an astonishing display of moral shallowness.

UPDATE:  This is funny.  (Via Mazurland.)


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