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Be Evil

I conceded the notion that privacy exists years ago. Considering how much I publish online, considering how much of my activity takes place online, I probably have far fewer things that are private than most people.

But when you take a moment to think about it, the degree two which we entrust faceless organizations with the intimate details of our daily lives is scary. Perhaps no company knows more about us than Google. And let me point out at this point that I am a big fan of Google.

As , Google tracks everything from my search activity to my blog posts to my daily reading habits to my travel destinations. Google , and their satellites can conceivably track my every move. But they don’t need to because I’ve got Google search and Google Maps on my phone.

What is scary is that example after example has proven that if a company wants to, it will exploit the private information they collect. And it really isn’t a matter of being evil or not. The problem is that in large institutions–government, nonprofits, or corporations–the structure of the organization itself makes such exploitation easy.

Ethical behavior within such structures really comes down to the choices that individuals make. But those ethical dilemmas are more easily glossed over due to the pressures of maintaining employment and an infrastructure that provides easy outs.  People are often responsible for just a portion of the overall decision to follow an unethical path, so that decision doesn’t appear irresponsible at all.

Earlier this month, the that quoted Google’s Vice President apparently distancing the search company from their famous motto, Don’t Be Evil:

"It really wasn’t like an elected, ordained motto…I think that ‘Don’t Be Evil’ is a very easy thing to point at
when you see Google doing something that you personally don’t like;
it’s a very easy thing to point out so it does get targeted a
lot."

Well, yes it is and that’s entirely the point and the brilliance of the motto.

that "Amit Patel, Google employee number 6 and one of Google’s first
engineers, coined ‘Do Not Be Evil’ in 1999 when the engineers became
afraid of the pressure they might receive from the business units of
the company."

If organizations are ultimately institutionally incapable of ensuring ethical behavior, than what will? A public motto that pledges ethical behavior.

Patel’s brilliance is his long-term vision. As an engineer, he was in a better position than most people to understand the vast trove of data a company like Google could compile on individuals. Such information stores could potentially invite abuse.

Do Not Be Evil. The phrase is simple and unambiguous and, in the end, gives Google no choice but to maintain the motto because the alternative is…evil.

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About David Erickson

David Erickson is principal of e-Strategy Media, a digital marketing consultancy based in Minnesota. David has extensive experience in digital marketing and is often used as an expert source by media and asked to speak on the topic before organizations and to sit on panel discussions.

2 Comments

  1. Todd on May 14, 2008 at 12:27 00 am CDT

    I really liked your paragraph about the diffusion of responsibility within organizations and its effect on ethical behavior. I think this is one of the key issues in information ethics. I agree that the battle for individual privacy is mostly over, if not completely. But the larger battle over the privacy/confidentiality of the organization is just beginning. Many factors deter people from sharing organizational information – such as fear of losing a job or the “go along to get along” behavior. We all need to think much more seriously about these larger issues.

    Thanks for bringing up these issues. I posted a weblog entry about some discussions on this very topic at a recent meeting of the Special Library Association, Minnesota chapter. Links aren’t going in so look for the April 23 entry “Information Privacy and Organizations”



  2. Todd on May 13, 2008 at 5:27 06 pm CDT

    I really liked your paragraph about the diffusion of responsibility within organizations and its effect on ethical behavior. I think this is one of the key issues in information ethics. I agree that the battle for individual privacy is mostly over, if not completely. But the larger battle over the privacy/confidentiality of the organization is just beginning. Many factors deter people from sharing organizational information – such as fear of losing a job or the “go along to get along” behavior. We all need to think much more seriously about these larger issues.

    Thanks for bringing up these issues. I posted a weblog entry about some discussions on this very topic at a recent meeting of the Special Library Association, Minnesota chapter. Links aren’t going in so look for the April 23 entry “Information Privacy and Organizations”



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