Don’t Be Evil! – Google’s Exasperating Gaffes

google privacyThe love affair of a smitten crowd of tech-industry watchers, analysts, and enthusiasts with Google has come to an abrupt end. The aura of super smartness and an unconventional persona has melted away.

Several people related Google’s atypical choices and actions with its ability to innovate rapidly and delight its customers and investors endlessly. “Don’t be evil” was romantically disarming — a refreshing new ideology that many believed would finally free the tech world from the “my way or the highway” ways of Microsoft. Unfortunately, that much awaited change in ideology may not happen soon.

Irrational Exuberance 2.0 is over. From a peak of $475.11 on Jan 11, 2006 Google’s stock today stands around $343. (Imho there is plenty of space for a further slide.) Hey Wait! No one warned us! Cry out bewildered stakeholders realizing that just before Jan 31st Quartely results declaration, Google’s co-founders cashed in for over 12 million shares. The charmer has crossed the line once again and this time people are loudly protesting. Forget the irresponsible investor guidance behavior. There are “don’t be evil” pleas about Privacy Issues that Google seems to be overlooking smugly. For Google strangely, being technologically super smart is the equivalent of being super good.

Several advanced users are simmering with discontent, even anger, on Google’s brash overlook of privacy concerns in Google Desktop 3. Clicking “OK” on a software use agreement without fully comprehending its legal-speak has become a norm for software consumers — especially when such software comes from an established and well-known company like Google.

How big brands manage to hide truth from consumers

Lack of consumer awareness about privacy issues with desktop search does not reduce the responsibility of Google. Several people smoke even when a cigarette box shouts loud and clear that smoking is injurious to health. Obesity problems resulting from greasy fast food consumption (and infamous lawsuits) are well known. Yet people continue to eat Burger and French fries. Why? Because cigarette advertisements depict smokers effortlessly seducing desirable women. But they don’t splash films of cowboy types suffering from the debility caused by chain smoking. McDonald’s advertisements show happy smiling kids not obese people who have grown up on Mcdiets!

Consumer behavior is very complex. It responds to deep emotional Branding. And even when the Brand Promise is not fulfilled by the Product — it takes a long long time for a consumer to figure that out. The larger problem is that for an average consumer understanding the intricacies of software behavior is very difficult. If everyone uses Google Search then it must be good is how average internet surfers would choose a search engine and desktop search software.

It is quite possible that Google does not intend to misuse the personal information it gets from its consumers. But does that stop an evil smart techie or a malevolent group/individual holding political/civil authority from getting the saved consumer information that is with Google? The line between not intending to do evil and becoming a channel for someone else to do evil is very thin. Google needs to apply its search-genius to deliver alternative and safer approaches to personalization.

What the motto originally meant in Google

It is interesting to review the context in which the famous Don’t Be Evil Google motto was adopted. I quote John Battelle from his brilliant account in “The Search” (a book on how Google and its rivals have shaped and influenced Internet Search and the business world): (Bold text in the quoted passage is done by me for emphasis)

“The founders asked Stacy Sullivan, then head of Google’s human resources, to round up a cross section of early employees with the mission of elucidating Google’s core values….That’s when Paul Buchheit…blurted out what would become the most important three words in Google’s corporate history….It became a cultural rallying call at Google, initially for how Googlers should treat each other, but quickly for how Google should behave in the world as well….Defining evil seems pretty simple when you’re sitting in a conference room of a small but growing Internet company in 2001…Don’t be Evil is a wonderful sentiment for describing the ethical boundaries of internal company dealings, but when your business is understood to be a global arbiter of human knowledge and commerce, sticking to such a principled stand can become extremely…tricky.

Not to mention that it smacked of arrogance – who were these Googlers anyway, and what right did they have to determine what was evil and what was good?”

Evidently the “Don’t be Evil” motto was primarily an internal standard of behavior set by Googlers for Googlers when the company was small. It is quite understandable that a small group of talented people would embrace the standard of Don’t Be Evil at their work place.

Many intelligent and productive people in a small fast-growing company would wish to preserve their work ethic as their company grows — free of the (standard big-business) suffocations of politics, infighting, and inadequate-results producing narrow-minded agendas.

The motto swelled-up in Googlers collective consciousness and soon avatared as Google’s business philosophy for the treacherously competitive business world. The Google PR machine didn’t realize the dangers of preaching such an impossible and misleading business motto. It whipped up a Love-Google frenzy that lead several tech-enthusiasts and media-folks to buy-in Piper Jaffray & Co.’s predictions that Google’s stock will touch US $ 600 by 2006 end. All this when no financial projections were offered by Google itself!

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