“Don’t be evil” does not equal “Be good”: Google and tracking

Google’s motto is understood to be “Don’t be evil”. It’s in the last sentence of their Code of Conduct document.

Sounds great, right? A big, ambitious, well-known business putting something so different and life-affirming right in the heart of their work?

I’ve had a problem with this ever since I learned about it. Because “evil” is a strong word. I would argue that it’s so strong that most of us will never encounter it on a personal level. We might be part of a systemic evil and not know it, but for the woman on the street it’s easy to imagine that evil doesn’t really exist.

Bad behaviour on the other hand, that’s something we encounter every day. Every time someone snipes at us, or we swear at someone who cuts in front of us. Every time we can’t be bothered to recycle something. It’s not evil as such. It’s just a bit naughty.

The problem is that naughty can become a habit, breeding a functional attitude to bad behaviour that becomes wrong doing. So while we are “not being evil” we might be “doing bad things” and overtime those bad things can become a habit that leads to problems. Perhaps even to evil.

Hannah Arendts talked about the banality of evil, the everyday efficiency and accounting practice that was used in the management of the gas chambers.

No. Of course I’m not saying that Google is evil on that scale. But I am saying that a cog in a system never thinks they are evil, but perhaps if they were asked to do something specifically good that would begin to prove difficult.

“Don’t be evil” is a negative. It’s not an active requirement to do anything differently. “Don’t be evil” does not mean “Be good”.

And so it is that we saw Google reversing its stance on tracking individuals and continuing to find ways of harvesting and selling their personal data even after individuals have explicitly said they don’t want to be tracked.

Google have been happily taking your data.

There is a good argument that they are providing us with a service and we have to pay for it somehow – nothing commercial comes for free. But to deliberately pursue and hide the ways individuals can protect their data and to chase and enable the scraping and selling of that without your consent? How would you define that? Not evil. But definitely not good.

I have never been impressed by this vague but wonderful sounding statement of Google’s. “Being good” requires deliberate choices and hard work. Not being “evil” apparently allows for lying to be perfectly fine.

You decide.