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Google's Don't Be Evil Commandments

In Larry Page's first substantive public communication since becoming Google CEO a year ago, Mr. Page's "2012 Update from the CEO" essentially reaffirmed Google's unique public profession of corporate morality that Google famously established in its 2004 IPO letter to shareholders. "Don't be evil" was a header in that letter and was defined morally only obliquely as: doing "good things for the world," and "keeping user trust." Google then ensconced this unique profession of morality in its corporate philosophy statement as "You can make money without doing evil," strongly implying other businesses routinely make money doing evil.

Remaining consistent in implying its moral superiority, a header in Mr. Page's 2012 update was "Love and trust." It stated: "We have always wanted Google to be a company that is deserving of great love. But we recognize this is an ambitious goal because most large companies are not well-loved;" and "We have always believed that it is possible to make money without being evil." Google's strong implication again is that Google is morally superior to other "large companies" who make money "doing evil" and "being evil."

Given the stark contrast between Google's sanctimonious profession of superior business morality and its own ignominious track record, have Google's actions and behavior measured up to its strongly implied moral superiority?

To answer that difficult question, what moral standard would be most appropriate to measure Google's public representations against? The most apt and widely accepted moral standard in America would be the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament which comprise most of the Judeo-Christian ethic imbued in America's Constitution and system of justice. In this particular case, the Sixth through Tenth Commandments, which address civic behavior, would be the most pertinent -- i.e. Thou shalt not: kill; commit adultery; steal; bear false witness; or covet others' property.

Of course Google has not committed murder. However for several years, Google showed willful blindness toward Google business practices that exhibited a callous disregard for human life, health and safety. In August, Google admitted to knowingly and repeatedly violating Federal criminal laws against the unsafe and unlawful importation of prescription drugs" for several years, in a criminal non-prosecution agreement; Google also paid a near record $500m criminal forfeiture penalty. The Rhode Island U.S. Attorney who led the Google criminal probe said the evidence was clear current Google CEO “Larry Page knew what was going on." No one knows how many Americans may have been harmed or even potentially killed from unsafe or counterfeit prescription drugs that Google knowingly and illegally mass-marketed to the American public from 2004-2011.

Once again, Google has not committed adultery. However, Google Inc. does have a serious business practice problem in this particular moral arena. Change.org features an online petition from the Women's News Network urging Google's CEO and top leadership to "Stop Google AdWords from all involvement in the sexual exploitation of women and girls." The National Association of Human Trafficking Victim Advocates has written a letter to the National Association of Attorneys General urging them to investigate Google for profiting from the sale of online ads that contribute to the trafficking of women and girls. Congressional lawmakers have also written a letter to Google CEO Larry Page to stop sexually exploitative advertising and marketing that harms women and girls. And evidence from human trafficking examiner Raymond Bechard shows that despite Google's charitable support of anti-slavery groups, Google's current search index and ad practices still widely support human trafficking interests.

On stealing, Google has a well-known moral problem of knowingly and systematically taking the property of others without their permission. Federal Judge Chin rejected Google’s proposed book settlement because it would reward Google "for wholesale copying of copyrighted works without permission." Google continues to systematically copy books without permission from the copyright owner – over fifteen million to date. In the Viacom vs. Google-YouTube $1b copyright infringement case, involving the alleged willful facilitation of hundreds of thousands of illegally downloaded videos, Federal Judge Stanton said: "...a jury could find that the defendants [Google-YouTube] not only were generally aware of, but generally welcomed copyright-infringing material being placed on their website." The Second Circuit Court of Appeals recently agreed with that conclusion and directed the Federal Court to investigate further to determine if Google showed willful blindness to YouTube's infringement. Oracle has sued Google for billions of dollars for "knowingly, directly and repeatedly infringed Oracle's Java-related property;" and an incriminating Google email shows Google’s leadership knew they needed to license JAVA but implicitly decided to steal it. Earlier this year, Google admitted to being caught systematically stealing business contacts from a Kenyan business directory. It is no coincidence that Google has been sued for copyright infringement by most all types of content: wire services, newspapers, broadcasters, movie studios, authors, publishers, visual artists, software providers, photographers, artists, graphic designers, illustrators, and filmmakers.

On bearing false witness, Google has a big moral problem here as well. In Mr. Page's recent 2012 Update from the CEO, Mr. Page represented that search advertising was aligned with user interests when users are the product Google effectively sells to advertisers who pay virtually all of Google's revenues: "We're lucky to have a very direct relationship with our users, which creates a strong incentive for us to do the right thing." This is exactly the opposite of what Mr. Page said in his Stanford research paper on his search algorithm: "The goals of the advertising business model do not always correspond to providing quality search to users. … we expect that advertising funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers." Ironically just last week, Australian Courts found Google guilty of deceptive advertising practices like offering sponsored links labeled "Apple's iPad" that when clicked would take the user to a Kindle Fire page. Just last year Google settled with the FTC that Google engaged in deceptive privacy practices in misrepresenting that they would keep Gmail contacts private when they made them automatically public with Google’s new Buzz social media service. In the FTC settlement Google promised to not misrepresent its privacy policy again; to allow users to opt-in to changes; and to be subject to privacy audits for twenty years. In commenting upon the importance of the settlement, Google's spokesperson said: "We don't see this as being a significant change in how we run our business because this is the standard we hold ourselves to already," per the New York Times.

On coveting others' property, Google appears to be among the most covetous entities ever. Its covetous mission is to "organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." The "world's information" includes everyone else's property, books, videos, software etc. (previously discussed under Commandment Eight) and everyone else's private information. Google just changed its privacy policy to enable Google to consolidate all of a user's separately-collected private information from roughly 60 different products into one uber-private profile with no opt-out possibility for users save for leaving Google entirely. And when access to others' private information is blocked by users' privacy choices and competitor's security protections, Google is so covetous of that exclusive private information that it hacked into Apple's Safari browser by tricking the browser into thinking a user had given Google permission to access the info and track users' behavior in Apple's supposed secure system, per a front page investigative expose in the Wall Street Journal. Google is so covetous of others private information so it can better target its advertising that it has had at least 35 privacy scandals.

In sum, the evidence above strongly suggests Google morally does not practice what it preaches.

To wrap up, it is especially ironic that the company that brands itself morally superior made an under-reported moral policy decision last summer to exclude from the Google for Non-Profits Program any entity that considers religion in its hiring decisions -- meaning Google now excludes most all religious institutions of all faiths from eligibility for free services like other non-profits receive from Google. This is telling given Google's own problematic hiring practices. In 2010, the DOJ found Google and five other companies illegally colluded to hold down the pay and career opportunities of its employees by conspiring to not poach or compete for each others' employees. Also in 2010, "Google, the company that wants to make the world's information accessible, says the race and gender of its work force [EEO hiring record] is a trade secret that cannot be released," per the Mercury News. Again Google takes a moral stand on other entities' hiring practices when its own hiring practices have been found to be illegal and non-transparent.  

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