Google released an updated code of conduct, which for the first time in almost two decades removed almost all mentions of its “Don't be evil” mantra. The code of conduct embodies a company's values, principles, and ideals, so removing the "Don't be evil" motto from the code may give us a hint towards the direction in which Google is going.
Google’s 'Don’t Be Evil' Motto
One of the unique things about Google, aside from its thirst for advanced technology and solid software engineering, has been its motto: “Don’t be evil.” Many, including Steve Jobs, have criticized this motto as being nothing but a marketing tactic.
Even if that were true, and its leaders never truly believed in this idea, many Google users and Google employees did believe in the motto. It was part of Google’s charm, and part of what made the company one of the most beloved brands in the world.
At least initially, Google also seemed to more often than not align itself with that motto, which is why many users believed it was real for so long. One of the most obvious examples of this commitment to not being evil was when Google gave up its operations in China to avoid further censorship and surveillance of its services and users in the country.
Up until that point, the company seemed to have tried to make itself worthy of that motto. However, since then things have started to change. Over the past few years, we’ve seen Google abandon end-to-end encryption projects, kill anti-censorship efforts that worked on its cloud infrastructure, and be involved in military projects which have the potential to do just as much “evil” as good.
Google Renounces 'Don’t Be Evil'
Following a protest made by thousands of Google employees against the company’s increasing involvement with the U.S. military and its work on autonomous drones, the company has eliminated all mentions of the “Don’t be evil” mantra from its Code of Conduct.
“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 co-workers with courtesy and respect.
The new code of conduct no longer centers around this motto, making almost no mention of it, except in passing at the very end of the multi-page document.
If the motto was truly just a marketing tactic, then there was little reason to minimize or discontinue it. However, after recently being called on it by its employees, Google may have started to believe that the “Don’t be evil” motto could encourage more employees to question and protest the company’s future projects that may be in an ethically grey area.
In the open letter to Google’s leadership, thousands of employees pleaded with the company to give up projects that can ultimately lead to people’s deaths, in an in effort to increase the company’s bottom line.
In the letter, the employees warned Google's leadership:
This plan will irreparably damage Google’s brand and its ability to compete for talent. Amid growing fears of biased and weaponized AI, Google is already struggling to keep the public’s trust. By entering into this contract, Google will join the ranks of companies like Palantir, Raytheon, and General Dynamics. The argument that other firms, like Microsoft and Amazon, are also participating doesn’t make this any less risky for Google. Google’s unique history, its motto Don’t Be Evil, and its direct reach into the lives of billions of users set it apart.
A few hundred researchers have also joined the Google employees with an open letter of their own, in which they're asking Google to end its AI partnership with the Pentagon:
We wholeheartedly support their demand that Google terminate its contract with the DoD, and that Google and its parent company Alphabet commit not to develop military technologies and not to use the personal data that they collect for military purposes.
They also added that:
We are also deeply concerned about the possible integration of Google’s data on people’s everyday lives with military surveillance data, and its combined application to targeted killing. Google has moved into military work without subjecting itself to public debate or deliberation, either domestically or internationally. While Google regularly decides the future of technology without democratic public engagement, its entry into military technologies casts the problems of private control of information infrastructure into high relief. Should Google decide to use global internet users’ personal data for military purposes, it would violate the public trust that is fundamental to its business by putting its users’ lives and human rights in jeopardy.
What’s Google Without 'Don’t Be Evil?'
So now the question remains: What is Google now that it no longer seems to believe in “not being evil?” Is it just another corporation doing anything to make a buck? If so, this will not be without consequences for the company’s future. As evidenced by the letter signed by thousands of Google employees, going down this path could mean less interest from developers to work for the company.
In an older TED talk, Simon Sinek, a marketing consultant and author of “Start with Why,” raised the issue of companies needing to give their customers and users something in which to believe - a purpose that aligns with its user base’ motives and ideals. He argued that this is what pushes everyone, both employees and customers to make the company truly great.
This is what makes a company such as Apple so loved by its customer base, and it’s what has made many love Google for its “Don’t Be Evil” ideals in the past. All of that could be in jeopardy, if Google plans to renounce its "Don't be evil" ideal.
We’re already seeing how the company’s “cool new technologies” are no longer received with just praise and optimism, but also heavy criticism and skepticism. This trend could worsen to Google's detriment if more people start believing that the company is no longer looking after them or trying to do good with its technology, but just willing to do anything to chase a profit.
Don't be evil has been Google's corporate identity for the longest time, but now that's no longer true. Whether or not we'll like this new Google that can't commit to not being evil anymore remains to be seen, but some of its latest moves already point to an increasingly worrying direction for the company.