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.