Does Google violate its ‘Don’t Be Evil’ pledge? That was the question at a recent discussion sponsored by Intelligence Squared, an interesting organization that organizes Oxford-style debates on contemporary topics. (PDF of the debate transcript here.)
I came into the debate on the “Google is (sometimes, mildly) evil” side but over the course of the discussion changed my mind, persuaded that while Google has made some mistakes and a few questionable compromises, notably collusion with the ChiComms, none of that adds up to being evil. I thought the pro-Google camp made a case that was not only more compelling, but obviously so. As usual, I was in the minority: Before the debate, only 21 percent of the audience believed Google had violated its “Don’t Be Evil” pledge; after the debate, 48 percent agreed with that proposition, with 48 percent against and the usual smattering of undecideds. But the Google-is-evil camp had changed more minds.
As Google solidifies its position as the digital world’s dominant media channel, it’s worth considering how they operate and what their values are. Conservatives (particularly we yahoo social conservatives) are right to be skeptical of Google’s corporate politics, which have a decidedly liberalish flavor. But there also seems to be something embedded in the structures of the digital domain that is inherently and salubriously libertarian. As pointed out by one of the debaters, Esther Dyson (who is really interesting), the radical decentralization of information has long-reaching consequences:
The challenge of power, is great. The great virtue of the Internet is that it erodes power, it sucks power out of the center, and takes it to the periphery, it erodes the power of institutions over people, while giving to individuals the power to run their own lives. Google is part of that. It’s one of these things that shines light on everything, it enables people to find stuff out, it enables them to question what their governments are doing, and it’s absolutely wonderful. … the power that Google has is primarily a good power though it could be used to do evil, it’s not like atom bombs. It’s not like guns…or even cigarettes, which when used correctly are destructive. The power of transparency, the power of knowledge, is fundamentally good ….
The anti-Google camp had a two-pronged attack: The first was unhappiness over Google’s accommodation of the government of China, which is necessarily a compromise with evil. Some people think that the good Google does in China is worth the trade-off; others object. The second prong was generic anti-big-corporation sentiment: Google is successful, Google is rich, Google has market power, therefore it is by nature suspect. That sort of argument is less interesting, though it does seem to be effective. (Always amazing how businesses that are hated are always described as corporations, a word that has become a term of abuse, as though a company’s legal structure were morally significant. Some of America’s most destructive firms are not corporations but partnerships, i.e. law firms, particularly the politically connected law firms that run the party machines in America’s big cities.)
Media Blog readers are pretty savvy news consumers. I’d be interested in knowing what you think about Google as a news provider, particularly whether you believe it to be an evenhanded and transparent channel or another forum for lefty bias.