IS GOOGLE GOOD OR EVIL? In Silicon Valley, Google's moral code is a contentious issue. To its local boosters, Google can do no ill; but to critics on both the left and the right, Google epitomizes all the worst hubris, hypocrisy, and greed of the dot.com era.
"Take their work in Africa," one idealistic entrepreneur, a Google booster, told me, at a recent technology summit. "Bank rolling the $100 laptop for African kids proves their commitment to human rights and universal justice."
"Google's China policy is much more revealing," counters a Google critic, an equally idealistic software engineer. "Google sold out to the communists. They couldn't care less about the rights of ordinary Chinese citizens."
Might Google be so unconventional as to exist outside traditional moral categories, to be simultaneously good and evil? On the Internet, anything is possible
THE MOUNTAIN VIEW-BASED Google is certainly an unusual company. Any search for Google's morality begins, naturally enough, at google.com--it's such an intelligent search engine that it knows itself. Entering the keywords "unconventional company" into google.com leads to a web of links about Google itself, all describing the Fortune 500 company as the most unconventional of American enterprises.
But artificial intelligence only goes so far. No Internet algorithm, even one authored by Google founders Sergei Brin and Larry Page, can explain the company's moral code. To answer this question, we must go offline, to Charles Taylor's 1991 study of unconventionality, The Ethics of Authenticity.
Taylor traces the modern idea of individual authenticity back to Rousseau's romantic theory of the self. Taylor says that this conception of the individual transforms truth into a subjective notion that is peculiar to each individual soul. Thus, an established moral code or social convention means nothing to each individual. Only the self, in all its authentic glory, can encode its own morality. As Taylor writes:
Being true to myself means being true to my own originality, and that is something only I can articulate and discover.
Consequently, each unconventional soul becomes, in the words of Alexis de Tocqueville, "enclosed in their own hearts." Originality replaces a common ethical code as the source of individual morality. The result is the countercultural ethic of "doing your own thing" in which everyone is free to pursue their own conscience.
This ethic of authenticity is the key to understanding Google and, as a bonus, gives us a sneak preview of the next big thing in the global economy: authentic capitalism.
TWO YEARS AGO, Google attached an open letter to its April 29, 2004 IPO filing. Authored by Sergei Brin and Larry Page and entitled "An Owners' Manual," it represented a confession of Google's core business and ethical principles. The letter began in a militantly authentic voice:
Google is not a conventional company. We do not intend to become one.
The Google guys, whose close partnership is rooted in their shared unwillingness to make ethical compromises, went on to promise investors that they would continue to do their own thing. Above all, that meant making money and "having a positive impact on the world."
Once authentic, always authentic. Two years after its unconventional IPO, Google continues to do its own thing. The denizens of the Googleplex continue to revolutionize the online search and advertising businesses. Google's shares now stand above $400, having more than quadrupled since the IPO. Profits are up, increasing 60 percent in the first quarter of 2006. Today, Google is increasingly perceived by both Wall Street and Silicon Valley as the next Microsoft.
But beyond its meteoric economic success, Google's unconventionality is as much ethical as operational. The company aggressively conforms to two laws, one economic, the other moral; laws that Max Weber would call the ethic of responsibility and the ethic of conviction. One the one hand, Google is a Wall Street paragon of economic profitability, responsibly returning profits for its investors quarter after quarter; on the other, Google is unashamedly committed to the public good, to improving the lives of as many people as possible, to being trustworthy and pursuing the public good.
THIS DUALITY can be seen in the company's strategies in China and Africa. In China, Google places profit squarely over morality; in Africa, the priorities are reversed.
Google's strategy in China, from early 2000 onwards, was to build a Chinese language version of its search engine that would mirror the content on the English language google.com. But on September 3, 2002, the Chinese government, deploying the so-called Great Firewall of China, shut down the Chinese language version of google.com because domestic Chinese Internet users had been using the uncensored search engine to access forbidden websites.
The company was faced with a joint ethical and business dilemma. It could either negotiate a compromise with the Chinese government or effectively cede the Chinese market to local search engine Baidu. Brin, Page, and company CEO Eric Schmidt chose to do business with the authorities in Beijing and build a "customized solution" for the China market.
In December 2005, Google signed a deal with the Chinese government that enabled the company to establish a legal presence in China. On January 27 of this year, the newly-engineered search engine "google.cn" launched. In contrast with the original Google Chinese language site in China (which continued to hobble along, ever vulnerable to the capricious whims of the Great Firewall), google.cn is censored. The Google engineers added an algorithm which replicated the ideological desires of the authorities in Beijing. As Clive Johnson explained in a recent New York Times magazine piece about Google in China:
Brin's team had one more challenge to confront: how to determine which sites to block? The Chinese government wouldn't give them a list. So Google's engineers hit on a high-tech solution. They set up a computer inside China and programmed it to try to access Web sites outside the country, one after another. If a site was blocked by the firewall, it meant the government regarded it as illicit--so it became part of Google's blacklist.
Google chose to mimic the Great Firewall. Everything that the Chinese government blocks, Google also blocks. Sensitive links, to Falun Gong, Tibetan opposition, or Tiananmen Square commemoration sites, no longer appear--instead, google.cn informs its users that the requested information is not available due to Chinese law. The presence of this information is, therefore, defined by its absence, by its holes rather than its wholeness. It's a scheme which might have been imagined by Kafka or Orwell.
On January 6 of this year, three weeks before google.cn launched, I attended Google co-founder Larry Page's keynote address at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Unsurprisingly, Page didn't speak about his China strategy. Instead he romanticized the bright side of Google's moral equation--their Africa policy:
Now let me switch gears to talk about a very serious issue. About 15 percent of the people in the world are on the Internet right now--15 per cent. We still have a huge way to go to get everyone online. . . . If you look at a picture of earth from space at night, you'll see that anywhere there's electric light, there's Internet, and anywhere there's Internet people are using Google. It all corresponds perfectly. But it's very sad that, for example, there are almost no queries coming from anywhere in Africa. I think that's an important thing to work on.
But in spite of this "sad" reality, Page had been "working on" a solution for the poverty of queries emanating out of the electronically dark African continent:
To try to help this, something we've been supporting is the MIT $100 Laptop Project. . . . It's a very cool project and they have very ambitious goals for it. They want to actually get 100 million of these out in the hands of children worldwide. It's also a very cool device, with a half a gigahertz processor, 128 megs of RAM and 500 megs of flash. And they're also doing a lot of cool things to get the price down. But I think it's really important to get devices like that out there in the world to give people greater access.
Getting a laptop into the hands of every African child isn't just a dream. In February of this year, a few weeks after Page's CES speech, Google announced the appointment of Silicon Valley visionary Larry Brilliant as executive director of Google.org--the company's $1 billion philanthropic arm. In a February 23 interview with Wired magazine, Brilliant articulated the value of providing underprivileged African children with laptop computers and wi-fi Internet access:
I envision a kid [in Africa] getting online and finding that there is an outbreak of cholera down the street.
SO HOW CAN WE EXPLAIN Google's seemingly irreconcilable Africa and China strategies--one so morally wholesome, the other so full of ethical holes? One explanation, of course, is hypocrisy. Many critics, particularly those on the traditional left, argue that Page and Brin are capitalist hypocrites, no different from the robber barons of the 19th century, making an ill-gotten fortune out of China and then easing their consciences on meretricious humanitarian gestures in Africa. Neither Larry Page's humanitarian trips to Ethiopia nor the philanthropy of Google.org, critics argue, have any significance beyond the symbolic. As the neo-Marxist cultural critic Slavoj Zizek notes in a recent London Review of Books essay, the Google founders are "liberal communists" whose "frictionless capitalism" allows them to simultaneously flatten the world economy, make a fortune, and feel ethically good about themselves.
But Zizek's interpretation of Google's ethical hypocrisy falls into the classic Marxist trap of explaining human motivation purely in terms of material greed. Hypocrisy might be the right word to describe Google's brand of morality--but I would argue that this is a hypocrisy rooted in values, not economic self-interest. Google's moral code reflects the unconventional values of its founders. It represents the hypocrisy of authentic capitalism.
Much has been made of the Google dictum which states: "Our informal corporate motto is 'Don't be evil.'" But this Manichean distinction is beside the point. To the founders of Google, more important than being either good or evil is being true--true to oneself and true to one's principles. Google's moral code represents the capitalism of authenticity. It's what makes Google different.
Page and Brin's faith in themselves and in Google are absolute. They are authentic and they have transmitted their personal authenticity into their company. So if Google says something is good, like say, the importance of being part of the Internet in China, then it must be good. If Google says something is evil, like, say, the absence of the Internet in Africa, then it must be evil.
Google's authentic capitalism means that any moral argument is valid, provided that the Google guys believe it. Clive Johnson, in his New York Times magazine piece, puts it succinctly, describing Google's China policy as being defined by the company's "halcyon concept of itself":
The carrot was Google's halcyon concept of itself, the belief that merely by improving access to information in an authoritarian country, it would be doing good. Certainly, the company's officials figured, it could do better than the local Chinese firms, which acquiesce to the censorship regime with a shrug. Sure, Google would have to censor the most politically sensitive Web sites--religious groups, democracy groups, memorials of the Tiananmen Square massacre--along with pornography. But that was only a tiny percentage of what Chinese users search for on Google. Google could still improve Chinese citizens' ability to learn about AIDS, environmental problems, avian flu, world markets.
Revenue, Brin told me, wasn't a big part of the equation. He said he thought it would be years before Google would make much if any profit in China. In fact, he argued, going into China "wasn't as much a business decision as a decision about getting people information. And we decided in the end that we should make this compromise."
So, is Google good or is Google evil?
Perhaps the best answer is the Nietzschean idea of being beyond good and evil. The ethic of authenticity, known to philosophers like Charles Taylor as radical moral relativism, is the new new-thing in Silicon Valley. Google's moral self confidence, its eagerness to do its own thing, whether in Africa, China, or outer space, makes it a pioneer of authentic capitalism. Google's moral code, its sense of right and wrong, its definition of justice, is what it says it is.
Andrew Keen is a veteran Silicon Valley entrepreneur and digital media critic. His book, The Great Seduction, will be published by Currency/Doubleday in 2007. He blogs at TheGreatSeduction.com and has recently launched aftertv.com, a podcast chat show about media, culture, and technology.