Last week, another distasteful use of your personal information by Google came to light: The company plans to attach your name and likeness to advertisements delivered across its products without your permission.
As happens every time the search giant does something unseemly, Google’s plan to turn its users into unwitting endorsers has inspired a new round of jabs at Google’s famous slogan “Don’t be evil.” While Google has deemphasized the motto over time, it remains prominent in the company’s corporate code of conduct, and, as a cornerstone of its 2004 Founder’s IPO Letter, the motto has become an inescapable component of the company’s legacy.
Famous though the slogan might be, its meaning has never been clear. In the 2004 IPO letter, founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin clarify that Google will be “a company that does good things for the world even if we forgo some short term gains.” But what counts as “good things,” and who constitutes “the world?” The slogan’s significance has likely changed over time, but today it seems clear that we’re misunderstanding what “evil” means to the company. For today’s Google, evil isn’t tied to malevolence or moral corruption, the customary senses of the term. Rather, it’s better to understand Google’s sense of evil as the disruption of its brand of (computational) progress.
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