Don’t Even Think of Being Evil

In a recent message on Twitter, search engine optimization (SEO) expert Rand Fishkin asks: “Can’t place all the blame on them, but is this really Google “doing no evil?” And he provides a link to the article ‘The Tax Haven That’s Saving Google Billions‘. (Also check out this excellent interactive graphic.)

The article describes how Google uses accounting tricks to move money between shell companies, thus avoiding paying billions that they would otherwise owe in taxes. Technically what Google is doing is legal, of course, but Mr. Fishkin’s concern was not wether it is legal, it was whether it is evil.

I won’t talk here about the specifics behind Google’s schemes. Instead, I’m intrigued by Mr. Fishkin’s misquote of Google’s slogan. Their famous slogan is not “Do No Evil”, it’s “Don’t Be Evil”. People seem to use the two as if they are interchangeable, but in my mind they’re not.

To violate the slogan “Do No Evil”, you only need to do one thing that is undeniably evil. Do business in China for 4 years, censoring your search results, and then pull out when the Chinese government threatens to pull your business license, collect personal information from Wi-Fi networks or give away personal information with user’s consent on Google Buzz and Bam!, you’ve violated your “Do No Evil” motto.

But Google’s motto is not “Do No Evil”, it’s “Don’t Be Evil”. To violate “Don’t Be Evil” takes a lot more work. Perhaps an unbroken string of things. It’s conceivable that a very good person could do a very bad thing – an indisputably evil thing – maybe even many bad things – and still be, at heart, a good person.

Nobody thinks that Lenny from ‘Of Mice and Men’ was evil for killing a mouse by petting it too hard. And nobody thinks that Lenny is evil for killing a woman when she struggled and screamed after he tried to touch her hair. After all, Lenny was stupid and his intentions (though selfish) were not to hurt anyone.

But Google is smart and has chosen this motto wisely. When Iran calls the US “the Great Satan”, they are not criticizing us for anything we have done. They are criticizing us for who we are. If they said, “We are angry at you because of your economic sanctions against us. Drop the sanctions and we will no longer hate you,” there is the hope of redemption in their eyes. But when they say, “We hate you because of who you are,” there is no recourse. We could conceivably stop doing what we do. We can’t stop being who we are.

So, when wildly profitable Google sets up shell companies amidst a time of unprecedented worldwide government budget shortfalls to evade taxes, they can always fall back on, ‘Hey, we’re hip. We’re cool. We have free sushi for lunch! Look at our neat logos. We’re not evil.’ And technically they’d be right. Technically.

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