Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” reveals more than you’d think

January 25, 2012 by Joshua
in Freedom

I just read a post, “Google is FUBAR,” (for non-geeks, fubar means “f‘ed up beyond all recognition) suggesting the company is on a slippery slope leading not to its demise but to move its practices from what people like to what will lock them in and to risk more forays into anti-trust and privacy territories.

Why is Google FUBAR, then? … It must irreparably alter its fleet of successful web properties to become more Facebooky. It must alienate users with weird, ungooglesque features. It must force Chrome and Google+ down the throats of users who are simply looking for a brilliant search engine.

The path towards Facebookness is fraught with strife. Facebook, as the incumbent with almost a billion active users, has a huge head start. Facebook can push onwards, continue to reap the truly monumental power of its network effect, and innovate without user backlash. Google on the other hand now has to spend the next year or two maneuvering its gribbly juggernaut between anti-trust, fair trade, and privacy allegations — all while trying to keep the users happy with a search engine that’s no better than Bing. Google is FUBAR.

That post got me thinking about the company’s slippery slope and I realized how fundamental its challenge is. I posted the following on Hacker News.

It just occurred to me a main reason they chose “Don’t be evil” as their slogan. The foundation of the company is a slippery slope that will forever motivate it to get more personal information and to do more with it — generally meaning profiting from that personal information in ways people don’t know about. Also, they will forever be asked or demanded that information from governments and other companies who want to do the same.

Many (most?) professions would never need to remind themselves not to “be evil.” Restaurants don’t have to say “Don’t be evil.” Yes, they have the motivation to skimp on quality or ingredients, but nothing like Google’s temptation. The company’s foundation is so laden with temptation to “be evil” it had to try to build defenses to it in its core.

The problem with that situation is that the motivation never goes away, but the effort to resist it can fade.

Recall from my posts on strategy, albeit in the context of North Korea, the value of customer captivity as a sustainable competitive advantage. That value, combined with how much information they can get and never lose, forms the slippery slope leading to Google knowing more about you than you do, you having no power to change it, and them having the opportunity or legal obligation to share that data.

This eternal slippery slope, shared by Facebook and plenty of other companies, is one of my main motivations to support Diaspora, Freedombox, and Free Software in general.

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