Google and the “Evil” Thing

Google’s code of ethics had an overarching theme in its early days, “Don’t be evil.” When Alphabet came along, the motto morphed to “Do the right thing.” Now, commentators are accusing Google of morphing further beyond its ethical roots by succumbing to the strict censorship controls of the Chinese government in order to get its search engine up and running in that country. Google’s CEO assures that Google is not even “close” to launching in China. But the experts are undaunted, “When you start an ethical, mission-driven company and take out the ethics, that’s a problem.” And Google believes competitors are behind the criticism it is weathering for considering China.

Google’s problem is that it never defined either “evil” or “the right thing.” In fact, Google’s code of ethics has had some very confusing, mixed-signal language over the years (and it remains a fluid document):

The code referenced a “gray zone”
“This is a matter as much practical as ethical.”
“Not all violations are equally serious.”
“Effort to stay within the law”

Those are a few examples the Barometer has collect over the years from Google’s code of ethics. Mixed signals? Soft, wiggle-room language.

Google’s biggest mistake on ethics is assuming that being on the correct side politically is being ethical. Now, as the company faces the issue of China, it is struggling because of political backlash.

A company with a sense of confidence about who it is and what it does need not worry about the backlash. However, underlying that sense of confidence and pride in what the company does is the need for core values. Perhaps Google needs to base its decision units values AND its business. Operating in a country that has human rights issues a difficult choice. However, there is a larger question, “Would opening up a search engine in China, however restrictive it might be, open the door for greater freedom and transparency?” Given the difficulty Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and others have experienced with the exercise of censorship, it is a given that whatever censorship controls might be in place upon entrance it is safe to assume that the human mind knows no limits in its quest for freedom and rights. The reality is that Google may be opening doors if there is some form of a worldwide search engine in China.

The Wall Street Journal advises that Google needs to just grow up. However, our definitions of “grown-ups” varies slightly. The WSJ says Google being pragmatic about the decision to enter China could cause it to lose trust. A grown-up might see the situation differently, “If we can weather the backlash for China is evil, we might be able to open some doors (and windows) for the people of China.” If there is no search engine available in China, are the Chinese people in a better situation?

Back to the drawing board for Google on codes of ethics, values, and strategy. With some grown-up provisions in all three, Google might have a chance for expansion, stability, and redemption. Once we see what comes from restricted access in China, we might find that Google was ahead of the curve and on top of the issues.

About mmjdiary

Professor Marianne Jennings is an emeritus professor of legal and ethical studies from the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, retiring in 2011 after 35 years of teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in ethics and the legal environment of business. During her tenure at ASU, she served as director of the Joan and David Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics from 1995-1999. In 2006, she was appointed faculty director for the W.P. Carey Executive MBA Program. She has done consulting work for businesses and professional groups including AICPA, Boeing, Dial Corporation, Edward Jones, Mattel, Motorola, CFA Institute, Southern California Edison, the Institute of Internal Auditors, AIMR, DuPont, AES, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Motorola, Hy-Vee Foods, IBM, Bell Helicopter, Amgen, Raytheon, and VIAD. The sixth edition of her textbook, Case Studies in Business Ethics, was published in February 2011. The ninth edition of her textbook, Business: lts Legal, Ethical and Global Environment was published in January 2011. The 23rd edition of her book, Business Law: Principles and Cases, will be published in January 2013. The tenth edition of her book, Real Estate Law, will also be published in January 2013. Her book, A Business Tale: A Story of Ethics, Choices, Success, and a Very Large Rabbit, a fable about business ethics, was chosen by Library Journal in 2004 as its business book of the year. A Business Tale was also a finalist for two other literary awards for 2004. In 2000 her book on corporate governance was published by the New York Times MBA Pocket Series. Her book on long-term success, Building a Business Through Good Times and Bad: Lessons from Fifteen Companies, Each With a Century of Dividends, was published in October 2002 and has been used by Booz, Allen, Hamilton for its work on business longevity. Her latest book, The Seven Signs of Ethical Collapse was published by St. Martin’s Press in July 2006 and has been a finalist for two book awards. Her weekly columns are syndicated around the country, and her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, Washington Post, and the Reader's Digest. A collection of her essays, Nobody Fixes Real Carrot Sticks Anymore, first published in 1994 is still being published. She has been a commentator on business issues on All Things Considered for National Public Radio. She has served on four boards of directors, including Arizona Public Service (1987-2000), Zealous Capital Corporation, and the Center for Children with Chronic Illness and Disability at the University of Minnesota. She was appointed to the board of advisors for the Institute of Nuclear Power Operators in 2004 and served on the board of trustees for Think Arizona, a public policy think tank. She has appeared on CNBC, CBS This Morning, the Today Show, and CBS Evening News. In 2010 she was named one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders in Business Ethics by Trust Across America. Her books have been translated into four different languages. She received the British Emerald award for authoring one of their top 50 articles in management publications, chosen from over 15,000 articles. Personal: Married since 1976 to Terry H. Jennings, Maricopa County Attorney’s Office Deputy County Attorney; five children: Sarah, Sam, and John, and the late Claire and Hannah Jennings.
This entry was posted in Analysis. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Google and the “Evil” Thing

  1. Ash says:

    > The reality is that Google may be opening doors if there is some form of a search engine in China

    There is a search engine in China, Baidu. That is Google’s real concern, just as much as Alibaba is a real threat Amazon and Ebay.

  2. mmjdiary says:

    Not really the focus of the piece, but I changed the wording to satisfy your concern. Baidu is not going to get folks what they want.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.