Is Google Evil? The Great Debate

This Thursday, I’m attending an evening with blogger Jeff Jarvis that is part of his book tour for “What Would Google Do?” I took the opportunity to review an Intelligence Squared debate, hosted last November by the Rosencranz Foundation, about whether Google violates its “don’t be evil” motto. You can listen to the debate on the NPR web site or read the transcript here. But, for those who can’t spare the hour and a half to listen or who don’t care to read through a 74-page transcript, I’ll attempt to summarize here, and then offer my own thoughts on both sides of the question.

Six people participated in this debate, not including the moderator, ABC News correspondent John Donvan.

Arguing for the motion that Google violates its motto:

  • Harry Lewis, Harvard, Professor of Computer Science
  • Randal Picker, University of Chicago, Professor of commercial law and senior fellow at the Computation Institute
  • Siva Vaidhyanathan, University of Virginia, Associate Professor of Media Studies and Law

Arguing against the motion that Google violates its motto:

  • Esther Dyson, journalist and entrepreneur
  • Jim Harper, director of Information Policy Studios at the Cato Institute
  • Jeff Jarvis, blogger; associate professor and director of interactive journalism program at the City University of New York

Google was invited to participate, but chose not to do so.

First, since the game is over, let’s take a look at the score, based on polling the debate’s live audience.

Before the debate:

  • 21% were for the motion that Google violates its motto.
  • 31% were against the motion that Google violates its motto.
  • 48% were undecided.

After the debate:

  • 47% were for the motion that Google violates its motto.
  • 47% were against the motion that Google violates its motto.
  • 6% were undecided.

While this may seem like a tie, it was clearly a victory for those who changed the most minds–namely, those arguing that Google does violate its motto.

But we at The Noisy Channel are not sheep who uncritically accept the purported wisdom of crowds. Let’s look at the actual arguments. I will try to distill the main arguments made by each side.

Those arguing in favor of the motion, i.e., that Google does violate its “don’t be evil” motto, made what amount to four  points:

  • Google’s China policy is evil (Harry Lewis): Google’s collaboration with the Chinese censors makes them complicit in the brainwashing and thought control of the Chinese people. Google’s motives cannot be equated to those of, say, the Voice of America in Bulgaria, even if both resulted in oppressed people experiencing partial access to the truth. The VOA was subverting Bulgaria’s regime, while Google made the deliberate choice to do business with a country whose local laws would require them to do evil. Google chose to collaborate with China’s censorship regime. That deliberate act violates its motto.
  • Google is evil by its own standard (Harry Lewis): Google surely intended a higher standard by “don’t be evil” than “don’t be as evil as Hitler”. Moreover, aspiration to not be evil isn’t enough. Google doesn’t live up to its aspirational promise. Google should be held to their literal motto, not the standard of whether they are evil in their hearts.
  • Google does evil by monopolistic abuse of market power (Randal Picker): Google has designed its auctions in a way that takes advantage of its market power. When faced with a conflict between what’s good for the world and its own interest, Google favors its own interests. Google acts as a monopoly, and its monopoly power is at the heart of its business model. They create evil that they do not need to create.
  • Google is guilty of hubris (Siva Vaidhyanathan): Google sees no limits to its power, and thus commits the deadliest sin of hubris. Aggressive competitiveness doesn’t make Google evil, but its holier-than-thou attitude is hypocritical hubris. Comparing Google to peers is irrelevant: Google has set its own standard and has not met it. Google’s motto reflects its hubris and is a cynical marketing ploy, a promise it has not kept.

Those arguing against the motion made these five points:

  • Google’s China policy virally spreads democracy (Esther Dyson): Google spreads democracy virally by its very presence, by engaging rather than succumbing to apathy. Google is not collaborating with the Chinese censors so much as infiltrating the regime, exposing people to the virtues of knowledge, inciting change for good. Google is bringing goodness to the world, eroding power structures and the abuse of power by others.
  • Google is not like other greedy corporations (Esther Dyson): Google’s leaders do not hold themselves directly accountable to shareholders, but rather pursue their own agenda that they believe maximizes long term value to shareholders. Google has set its own standard and has met it by aspiring to do good.
  • Much of the evil attributed to Google is more correctly attributed to governments (Esther Dyson): The real danger is not Google, it’s the government. Governments have power which can easily be abused, while Google is constrained by law, by competition, and by its users. Those constraints actually help prevent Google from being evil, but beyond that Google doesn’t want to be evil. In any case, don’t blame Google for bad things it does in order to comply with the law.
  • Google is no more evil than the internet as a whole (Jim Harper):  Google is neither evil like Hitler, nor does the fact of its aggressive competitiveness make it even in the Enron sense of being driven by corporate greed. Google is essentially good, and its stated aspiration to not be evil argues in its favor.
  • If Google is evil, then humanity is evil (Jeff Jarvis): Google is good and virtuous, and therefore not evil. Its very aspiration to not be evil is evidence in its favor. If Google is evil, then the standard is too high and we are all evil.  Why Google acts is more important than how Google acts, and Google acts out of the belief that they are trying to do good. If that is not enough the standard is God-like perfection. Google’s only crime is its success.

These are interesting arguments. But let me try to offer two arguments of my own to each side that, in my opinion, strengthen their positions:

For those arguing that Google is evil:

  • Google’s collaboration with the censors in China is comparable–albeit to a much lesser degree–to the behavior of companies that conducted business with the Nazis or supplied technology to the apartheid regime in South Africa. Google provided technology that the Chinese government wanted–perhaps even needed–in order to ensure China’s global competitiveness. But even if China did not need Google’s help (after all, they have Baidu), Google still was evil to collaborate with a regime that oppresses its people by censorship and widely documented abuses of human rights. Imagine walking in on a mob of people beating someone to death. Your contribution might have no effect on the outcome of the hapless victim. But it is still evil to participate.
  • Google is a parasite, abusing its market power to dominate the retail, media, and advertising industries. Two specific examples: the “secondary search” feature that Google imposed on retail and media sites, undermining those site owners’ control of their users’ experience; and the lack of transparency in Google’s auction model for advertising. Google’s successful acquisition of DoubleClick and its abortive attempt to partner with Yahoo! show that it only seeks to reinforce this market dominance.

For those arguing that Google is not evil:

  • If Google’s collaboration with the censors in China is evil, it is at most a lesser evil. China already has Baidu, which offers comparable technology and competitive advantage to China as a nation. Google at least offers a wedge that might open up China to viral democratization. As Google senior policy counsel Andrew McLaughlin said, Google made the decision that provides the greatest access to information to the greatest number of people.
  • Google may be not be winning the love of the retail, media, and advertising industries, but it is serving the interests of its the constituency that matters: users. Google has given users–ordinary people, the little guy–unprecedented access to information, and has unlocked the control that retailers and media companies have held over this content. Furthermore, Google has democratized advertising, making it possible for smaller players to operate in a market previously dominated by big, mass-market brands.

And where do I stand personally? I think it’s silly to evaluate a company in terms of good and evil, even if Google has invited us to do so. There are the rare examples of companies being evil (IG Farben in the traditional sense of the word; Enron in the more modern sense of being the caricature of a morally bankrupt corporation), but these are the exceptions. I find it more useful to ask whether Google is making the world a better place.

For the most part, I think the answer is yes. I remember the pre-Google world, and I’m much happier living in this one. Nonetheless, I believe that Google, by resting on its laurels, is dragging the rest of the world down it its complacency. Do I blame Google for its complacency? Yes, I do, and I’ve told them as much.

But I also blame the rest of us. We continue using Google by choice–perhaps pressured by network externalities, but certainly not by coercion. It’s up to us, as users and as technologists, to set the bar higher.

By Daniel Tunkelang

High-Class Consultant.

25 replies on “Is Google Evil? The Great Debate”

Wal-Mart is one of my employer’s customers, and Google is a competitor, so it’s clear to me which one is evil! 🙂

Seriously, you rightly note, like the opposition in the debate, that profitability and competitiveness are not inherently evil, and that fair wages, in a market economy, are determined by the market. That said, you don’t address the two main charges against Wal-Mart: the lock-ins and the claim that their wage and health care policies have been designed to make their employees dependent on government subsidies.

In any case, I find my own arguments–on both sides–more convincing than those used by the debaters. Perhaps I’m the one guilty of hubris!


I’ll have to listen to the whole thing, before I make any conclusions. But what I found missing from your summarization was any historical perspective of the context in which this “don’t be evil” motto arose, in the first place.

“Don’t be evil” arose from Google-internal discussions about the relationship between advertising and search relevance. Correct?

Let’s go back to Brin and Page’s original WWW paper, the one that started this whole thing. I quote from that paper (emphasis mine):

“Currently, the predominant business model for commercial search engines is advertising. The goals of the advertising business model do not always correspond to providing quality search to users. For example, in our prototype search engine one of the top results for cellular phone is “The Effect of Cellular Phone Use Upon Driver Attention”, a study which explains in great detail the distractions and risk associated with conversing on a cell phone while driving. This search result came up first because of its high importance as judged by the PageRank algorithm, an approximation of citation importance on the web [Page, 98]. It is clear that a search engine which was taking money for showing cellular phone ads would have difficulty justifying the page that our system returned to its paying advertisers. For this type of reason and historical experience with other media [Bagdikian 83], we expect that advertising funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers. ”

Now this is very curious to me, because it is not just about having a clear separation between the ads and the organic results. It’s about the motivation and incentives that occur when advertising is your business model.

We could have a larger debate about whether it broke the original “evil” motto when Google started placing ads above the organic results. Whether or not those ads were clearly delineated, they still appear as the first results to your query.. which places the needs of the advertisers.. literally.. above the needs of the consumers.

But again, we don’t even have to have that debate, because look at what Brin and Page say in the very next paragraph, in their 1997 paper: “Furthermore, advertising income often provides an incentive to provide poor quality search results. ”

You conclude your blog post, Daniel, with this statement: “Nonetheless, I believe that Google, by resting on its laurels, is dragging the rest of the world down it its complacency. Do I blame Google for its complacency? Yes, I do, and I’ve told them as much.”

Is not “resting on [one’s] laurels” the same thing as proving poorer results than one could provide, if one were not resting on one’s laurels? Isn’t that what resting on one’s laurels is.. not being the best one could be?

It sounds like you are saying that Google really has fallen prey to that “advertising income incentive”, which is that once ad money comes rolling in, they stop improving things as much as they could.

So if you take a historical perspective, and go back to what Google themselves meant by “evil”, doesn’t it seem to you that they’ve now become that very thing that they once called evil? What does it matter if the ads above the organic results have a different background color? If this advertising is causing them to rest on their laurels, then it is providing incentives that are incompatible with producing the best results for users.


Let me quote just one more like from the Brin and Page WWW paper:

But we believe the issue of advertising causes enough mixed incentives that it is crucial to have a competitive search engine that is transparent and in the academic realm.

Isn’t transparency one of the key points on which you often rail against Google?

If to not be evil meant to be transparent, and if Google is now anything but transparent.. doesn’t that mean Google has broken its own self-proclaimed definition of evil?

For the moment, forget China missteps. Forget copyright double-standards. Forget all the other issues that have cropped up. Just look at the core idea of transparency, and what that originally meant to Google, in terms of “evilness”.


I think they define transparency narrowly in the sense of clearly labeling which links are sponsored and keeping those distinct from their “organic” or “natural” results. And, by that definition, I think they’re living up to their promise.

Of course, it’s not how I define transparency. By my definition, they violate transparency by using a secretive ranking algorithm. But I don’t think it’s fair to Google to say that they’re evil just because they don’t live up to my standards. My delusions of grandeur notwithstanding, I don’t have that power to judge.

A more interesting question is whether, by their own standards, they are striving to be the best they can be. I do question whether than can truly uphold a Chinese wall between search and advertising when advertising is what pays the bills, and that might be subtly influencing where they invest their efforts. But all I can offer there is groundless speculation.

That’s why I stick to concrete examples of what they actually have done. And, to be clear, I think that, on the whole, the world is far better off with Google than without Google. That’s good enough for me. But they’re the ones who picked the higher standard.


..but then they are resting on their laurels, right? That’s a concrete example of what they actually have done. And so it seems, by their own definition of evil (the wrong-headed incentives that advertising creates) they’ve gone down that path.


They aren’t innovating in the way I think they should, but that could reflect a failure of imagination, rather than a conflict of interest with their business model. But to call that “being evil”? That feels like a stretch.


No, in *my* own definition of evil, I wouldn’t call that evil, either. But I’m not trying to impose my own definition on them, either.

I’m saying that we have to go by what Google themselves have said, and where the historical context and motivation for that phrase came from. And “evil”, when it was first used by Google, meant placing the needs of the advertisers above the needs of the users.

So the question is whether, by putting more effort into advertising initiatives (youtube ads, dmarc/radio ads, google print ads, image search ads, gmail ads, ever-expanding adwords features, ever-expanding adsense features) than into search initiatives, they are valuing the advertiser more than the user. If so, then by their* own* definition, they are “evil”.

But that’s the question. How much time and effort has Google spent increasing search relevance, versus how much time and effort has Google spent expanding advertising initiatives?

Whose needs are currently being serviced more? The users’ or the advertisers’?

You’ve said Google is resting on their laurels in search. I think so too. But Google doesn’t appear to be resting on their laurels in advertising. New ads are popping up everywhere across Google properties.

I am not talking about a failure of imagination. That’s different from laurel-resting. I’m talking about a decision about where resources are allocated.


Point taken. I guess I’m not willing to definitively conclude that they are “valuing the advertiser more than the user”–at least not without having a lot more visibility into their decision making process.


I suppose that, in all honesty, I cannot definitively conclude that, either.

But in terms of visibility into their decision-making process, I think that it helps to see what they’re publicly saying about each area, ads and search.

For search, remember this little gem from last September?

If the internal belief is that search is 90% done, then where do you think most of Google’s effort is going? Probably not into search. Oh, I’m sure there is some maintenance that needs to happen. You have to keep the system running, tweak things here and there. And you always need a team to fight search spam. But that’s part of the 90% that they’ve already mostly done.

Contrast that with Eric Schmidt’s recent statements about how Google does not have a monopoly on advertising.. because text search ads represent but a very small portion of the total advertising market. Google has made it clear that they want a larger piece of that whole, very large market.

To me, that speaks volumes about their decision-making process.. or at least about the attitudes that feed into that process. If you think you’re done with search, except for a little bit of maintenance, but have a lot more that you want to do with advertising, then that is where you are going to dedicate your innovative efforts. And I think that it shows.

Anyway, all I was trying to say is that, at least from your summary of the “Intelligence Squared” debate, I saw zero discussion on where the “don’t be evil” motto came from, what its historical context and origins within Google are. And it seems to me that before you even start discussing something like China, you have to understand where the motto came from; it came from a relationship between search and advertising, and some of Brin&Page’s very early statements about the mixed incentives that advertising-based search engines face.

Maybe you can bring this up with Jeff Jarvis, ask him a little more about it, and report back to us. If this is something that is interesting to you. I would be interested in hearing that conversation.


I cede your point. In any case, I’ll see if I can get a word in edgewise at Jeff Jarvis’s talk this Thursday. If you listen to the debate, you’ll notice that he’s a formidable speaker. That’s why I’m trying to cheat by starting the conversation a few days in advance!


Oh, no, I hope that I wasn’t ungraciously pressing my point further than you had ceded it. I was just trying to swing it full circle, and simply make sure that it was clear what the core underlying issue was. So that it could be succinctly restated.

I am currently on page 67 of 74 of the debate transcript, and so far I have not seen a single mention of where the “don’t be evil” phrase really came from. The closest someone got is when they said something like “what google really meant was ‘don’t be greasy'”

That’s in the right spirit, but it still doesn’t tell the history and context, which is all about advertising incentives and search incentives and how they fundamentally and naturally conflict with each other. Not “being evil” is all about figuring out two things: (1) Where do the sources of this search vs. ads conflict come from, and (2) How do we keep each of those conflict sources from happening?

One source of the conflict is with ranking promotion. Google manages that particular conflict by separating ads and organic results, placing the ads to the right of the organic results, or placing them in-line with (above) the organic results, but with a different background color. One could argue whether or not in-line ads are well-enough separated (i.e. whether there should be anything above the first organic result or not), but generally, both the cause of, and a reasonable solution to, this particular conflict is well understood.

But ranking promotion is only one of many sources of conflict between search and ads.

There are other, often more subtle conflicts. One such conflict is the amount of resources dedicated to each. How much effort do you spend improving search vs. improving advertising. Spending any amount of time or money on one will, automatically, mean that you have spent less time on the other. You often have a choice — do you implement exploratory search, or do you add ads to YouTube?

So there is a fundamental conflict — a resource mixture conflict. How is this conflict resolved? Is the conflict even acknowledged, within Google’s walls? Because if it is not even acknowledged, then I would argue Google is being evil, in the sense that they are not being true to their original motto of keeping search and ads incentives from trampling on each other, because it will never try to solve a problem that it doesn’t think exists.

Have you heard the quote from that Kevin Spacey movie, The Usual Suspects? “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” Great line.

The message is that if we refuse to acknowledge that a problem even has the potential to exist, we’ll never believe it, even if that problem does exist. And since not even one of the six people on the Intelligence Squared panel seemed to be even remotely aware of the “resource conflict” mixed incentive issue between ads and search, I have to be wary. Maybe Google is doing a fantastic job of managing the resource conflict issue. But if the panel doesn’t even know to ask the question, it will never do a good job of figuring out whether or not Google has been evil. And the question at least needs to be asked.


Jeremy, you may be persistent, but never ungracious. I do worry sometimes that you’ll acquire a majority stake in this blog, given how much you contribute. You really ought to start your own blog!

I made a typo in my previous comment that I’ve now fixed–I meant to say “I cede”, not “I ceded”.

But to reiterate, I think your point about resource allocation is a fair one, even if it’s one we can’t resolve with the available information. And it is a point the debaters were remiss not to at least bring up. A more extreme question might be whether it’s inherently “evil” to be, at heart, a company that sells ads?


Well, you are gracious to label it persistence, rather than myopia. 🙂

But that’s what I’m still struggling to figure out with the blogosphere. I enjoy the raw discussion, more than I particularly enjoy leading the discussion. And being the “blogger” as opposed to the “commenter” means that one’s task is slightly different. No, the majority stake it still yours; you set the tone, as it should be.

Hmm.. the question about whether there should be any advertising at all? I think that’s an interesting topic, in and of itself. But that deserves its own post. Maybe time to start my own blog? Heh.


Ah, finally a discussion about Google with some meat to it.

IIRC the term “do no evil” was originally coined by Paul Buchheit (ex-Googler and now FriendFeed) in the early days of Google.

When it comes to your point about the PageRank stuff Daniel I have no problem with Google keeping those cards close to the chest after all they are a business and PR has always been its ace in the hole – so to speak – and really I think it should remain that way.

I will say however that being a business Googles interests are to its shareholders and Founders not the users regardless of what they might say in public. As such when they say search is 90% figured out I just laugh because in my opinion (for what it is worth) I don’t see it even nearing the 50% marker.

I also don’t see anything wrong with they way they conduct their advertising business in relation to search even if it is geared more to their benefit rather than the content producers. The idea of a Chinese Wall has always been a joke regardless of the medium but I would suggest that traditional media these days make more of a joke of the concept that any group of content producers – including Google.

The fact is that business is inherently evil to one degree or another. After all business isn’t about us all sitting around a campfire singing little ditties of friendship. Business is about making money and no matter how we might like to think otherwise that means doing evil things of varying degrees. There has never been; nor will there ever be, a successful company who at some point hasn’t commited a transgression of one sort or another. To think that Google isn’t – or won’t or hasn’t – done the same is deluding themselves.


Steven, always good to see you in these parts! I agree that Google is a private business, not a public utility or entitlement, and they are free to do as they damn please.

But Google has put a lot of effort into publicly branding themselves as a different kind of company. I don’t see Microsoft or Wal-Mart exhibiting such pretensions. Apple, maybe, but their attitude is more “we know better than you” than “we answer to a higher calling”.

I have no problem accepting Google as a business and judging it on those terms. But if Google is going to claim more, then I’ll be among those keeping them honest.


Yes Google *did* put a lot of effort into being a ‘different’ company but that pretty well became a joke not long ago. That doesn’t mean though as you suggest that they shouldn’t have their feet kept to the fire I just have less expectations from them as a company now.


Steve — I think you’re correct about Paul Buchheit being the person who actually coined the phrase. But the spirit or attitude behind the phrase is older than Paul. The spirit comes from Larry and Sergei themselves, and their reaction to the relationship between advertising and information seeking. As I’ve already quote above, Larry and Sergei wrote:

we expect that advertising funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers. ”

That sums it up. That’s what Google originally meant by “evil”. Certainly not in any hitlerian sense, of course not. But the fundamental incompatibilities between advertisers and users.

The thing is, Google didn’t have to be advertising supported. That was a conscious decision that came later, 2-3 years after they started the company. They could have gone with another model.. subscription, micropayments, etc. But they didn’t choose that route. They looked around, saw what Overture was doing, and copied Overture’s business model. And in the process, they threw out the door their previous statements about advertisers, and integrated into their fledgling company that full “inherent bias[] towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers.

So you are absolutely correct, Steve. Google’s interests are first and foremost to their shareholders, not to their users. That by itself is not evil, or at least no more evil that the rest of our society 😉 The problem comes in how Google is going about serving their shareholders. Rather than serving their shareholders, by making money off of subscriptions or micropayments or similar business models, they are serving their shareholders by going to that very business model that they originally proclaimed did not serve user interest: advertising.

That effort of being a “different” company didn’t become a joke only recently. It became a joke 8-9 years ago, when they started showing their first ads.


In fairness to Google, it’s not clear whether, even back when they chose the ad-supported route, that there was any other plausible path to a being a viable business. By now, of course, they have helped ensure the tyranny of free, at least for the foreseeable future. But, if no other path would have led them to a viable business model, then what should they have done?

And I ask this as someone who hates the ad-supported model and would much prefer a world where people simply paid for the products services they consume, online as we do offline. But that’s not the world we live in today, and I’m not even sure it’s the world we lived in back when Google first bit the fruit of advertising.


Your point is fairer than fair. In all actuality, it is not clear that Google would have succeeded, if they had not chosen the advertising route. If they had chosen a more direct-payment approach, they might have folded.

So let’s look at the other side of the coin. Instead of looking at a single big decision, let’s look at a long term pattern of tiny decisions. Now I ask: In the 8-9 years since Google made that big decision to show advertising, and in the 7-8 years since that decision made them profitable, and in the 5 years since that decision made them insanely rich, how many decisions has Google made to release product that were “fair-trade, pay for what you get” products?

One. The Google Enterprise box.

And how many decisions has Google made to release products that were advertising supported, either directly or (through advertising as a subsidy on the main site) indirectly? Dozens? Hundreds?

Let’s add up all those tiny little decisions, and look at what sort of pattern emerges, look at what sort of tapestry Google has been weaving. Even when we do this, it becomes very clear to me that Google has little or no desire to wean itself from the advertising nipple, little or no desire to minimize that “inherent bias towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers.” Instead, Google has been more than happy to cultivate advertising in a myriad of forms, growing, rather than reducing, their anti-consumer bias.


And for that matter, I have friends inside Google who have told me that there were arguments internally at Google, about even releasing Google Enterprise boxes at all. There were almost zero choices for non-ad-based Google services!


I take that back.. I think Google Apps for your domain recently became a pay service. So, there are two services now — apologize for the miscount. Versus hundreds of other Google services that are still ad-based.


Well, that’s just it: nobody ever weans themselves–that’s why it’s a transitive verb. It takes two to tango, and Google’s addiction to advertising is exceeded only by the online world’s addiction to free.

Granted, Google’s continued investment in ad-supported services only reinforces this unholy co-dependence, but I’m not sure what Google would gain by offering non-ad-supported services that flopped. Starbucks at least gets good PR (public relations, not PageRank!) for selling fair-trade coffee.

In any case, selling to enterprises is different from selling to online consumers. Enterprises still understand the concept of paying for products and services. Some of them even have customers who pay them!


Comments are closed.