'Do No Evil' lays bare Web giant's hypocrisy

By Philip J Cunningham (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-01-18 07:55
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There's something irremediably banal about Google's corporate motto "Do No Evil". It's hype and it's hypocritical.

And it's a curiously negative construct: Eschewing evil is not necessarily about doing good. In sum, it is a sophomoric yet shrewd manner of self-presentation that is not without its believers.

It speaks to the informal, idealistic ethos of a student-run Silicon Valley garage startup, even though Google is now a multibillion-dollar entity with nearly 20,000 employees. It has computer links and arrays vast enough to map, copy and store billions and billions of private bits, day after day.

But pretending not to be a big company does not make Google a small company any more than their witty motto means they are doing good.

There are numerous shades of gray between not doing evil and evil, especially if one's core business is information mining in service of advertising.

Neither the super suave Mad Men nor real life ad men pretend their business is about maintaining a high moral standard. Advertising, an ethically challenged field of endeavor in the best of times, involves psychological suggestion, manipulation and deception.

But Google's difficulty in hewing to its motto extends beyond ad revenue to new frontiers of surveillance, digital profiling, and the questionable storage of vast files of information on individuals that would be the envy of old Cold War spies.

Where's the "Do No Evil" when it comes to collecting data and profiteering off the private lives of others?

Google's hunger for information is largely a one-way street. How much do we know about Google and its inner workings and its secret deals? How good is it to its word when it comes to not reading other people's mails?

Even Microsoft's Steve Ballmer, an aggressive capitalist in his own right with a sharp eye on profit and market share, has gone on record to criticize Google for scanning the content of user e-mails for the sake of advertising research.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt has acknowledged that private information is stored and might be shared with US authorities, blithely absolving the company of responsibility by saying "We are all subject in the United States to the Patriot Act".

In recent weeks, air travelers have been forced to consider, with an understandable mixture of alarm, resignation and dismay, the prospect of intrusive full-body scans at airports.

Those in favor of scans that see through clothing assure us that the scanners won't store, transmit or otherwise take pleasure in a geekish technology that renders real the unfulfilled promise of X-ray glasses of comic book yore.

Yet even with appropriate restraints in place, there's something spooky about such intrusions upon one's physical person.

Then again, in information terms, the Internet-using public is scanned every day and is as good as naked, while aggregate pictures are being passed around for the profit of companies for whom "reading" private preferences is the coin of the realm.

Internet users communing alone with their computers at all times of day and night leave a long, detailed electronic trail about their fears, fetishes, tastes, likes, dislikes, health concerns, political leanings and pet peeves that open numerous windows of vulnerability, almost as if the Internet were a trusted friend, which it decidedly is not.

We have to take it on faith that Google doesn't read other people's mails. But even assuming, quite generously, that they don't, who's to say they or their corporate colleagues and successors won't succumb to the temptation to gaze upon - in plain print, photo and video format, or in slyly telling, algorithmically generated profiles - the bare body of the public.

Nothing better demonstrates the banality of "do no evil" than two math nerds who, without conspiracy or grand design, stumbled upon a formula for raking in billions of dollars in advertising revenue by offering free Internet searches, email and other Net services, that, once scanned, recorded, mined and interpreted, could be used to target commercial ads.

Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page may well be decent guys with no intent to do evil but they created a Frankenstein. They are wealthy enough to leave the "dirty work" of data mining the multi-tentacled, information-gobbling monster to assistants, human and robotic.

It is also possible that Google, which has not gobbled up as much market share in China as it has elsewhere, may be exhaling one last triumphant hurrah, using its banal motto as cover, before beating an inglorious retreat.

If so, it's yet another example of American hubris and imperialistic hypocrisy, which says in effect, do as we say, not as we do.

The author is professor of media studies, Faculty of Social Studies, Doshisha University, Japan

(China Daily 01/18/2010 page9)