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March 18, 2008

Don't Be Evil, a Trigger for Ethical Questions

Everyone quotes Google's informal motto "Don't be evil" (it's not "Do no evil") when Google does something questionable. Wikipedia's article for "Don't be evil" includes a fragment from John Battelle's book "The Search" that explains its origins:
On July 19, 2001, about a dozen early employees met to mull over the founders' directive [to elucidate Google's core values] ... The meeting soon became cluttered with the kind of easy and safe corporate clichés that everyone can support, but that carry little impact: Treat Everyone with Respect, for example, or Be on Time for Meetings.

The engineers in the room were rolling their eyes. [Amit] Patel recalls: "Some of us were very anticorporate, and we didn't like the idea of all these specific rules. And engineers in general like efficiency — there had to be a way to say all these things in one statement, as opposed to being so specific."

That's when Paul Buchheit, another engineer in the group, blurted out what would become the most important three words in Google's corporate history. "Paul said, 'All of these things can be covered by just saying, Don't Be Evil,'" Patel recalls. "And it just kind of stuck."

... In the months after the meeting, Patel scribbled "Don't Be Evil" in the corner of every whiteboard in the company... The message spread, and it was embraced, especially by Page and Brin... "I think it's much better than Be Good or something," Page jokes. "When you are making decisions, it causes you to think. I think that's good."

A Google poster that explained "Don't be evil". From Google - Behind the Screen

Paul Buchheit, Gmail's first engineer, who now works at a start-up called FriendFeed, remembers that user's trust was an important decision factor.
At the time that the phrase was created, paid inclusion was a big issue, and we generally felt that it was rather evil due to its deceptive nature. In general, anything that involves deceiving your users is likely to be evil.

I think the most important effect of "Don't be evil" is that it gives everyone license to question decisions instead of simply following orders. I expect that the result is therefore reflected in thousands of small decisions and debates rather than a few large, highly visible issues. The other effect of course is that Google is held to a higher standard.

It's difficult to keep this high standard when you're a big corporation that needs to stay competitive. The difference between Google and other companies is that you'll never see news articles that question if other companies did something evil.

Eric Schmidt sees "Don't be evil" as a starting point for interesting conversations:
One day, very early on, I was in a meeting where an engineer said, "That would be evil." It was as if he'd said there was a murderer in the room. The whole conversation stopped, but then people challenged his assumptions. This had to do with how we would link our advertising system into search. We ultimately decided not to do what was proposed, because it was evil. That kind of story is repeated every hour now with thousands of people. Think of "Don't be evil" as an organizing principle about values. You and I may disagree on the definition of what is evil, but at least it gives us a way to have a very healthy debate.

To sum up,

Don't be evil =

"When you are making decisions, it causes you to think." (Larry Page)
"The most important effect of Don't be evil is that it gives everyone license to question decisions instead of simply following orders." (Paul Buchheit)
"Think of Don't be evil as an organizing principle about values." (Eric Schmidt)


  1. There's a difference between "do good" and "do not do evil." Taken to the extreme (and outside the realms of discussing Google Inc), even the most cruel dictactor oftens thinks they are doing good overall, if at the sacrifice of small evils. Also, the death penatly for instance is a small evil for a perceived subjective greater good. However, "do not do any evil" makes it a bit harder to apply the "justified by greater good" ethics. Perhaps that's why it was such a successful guideline, and perhaps that's why it had to go.

  2. Anything is considered Okay in War, Love & Sales and, that way, putting restraint by oneself not to resort to anything deliberately wrong is a good idea !

  3. I have had an immense respect for google just for the same reason...and i still do..i think the attitude 'do no evil' shows...

    It's difficult to keep your feet firmly on the ground while ur head's up high in the sky...take for example microsoft and sony...the two technology behemoths, with even bigger egos...always trying to show off their aggressive business strategies, pushing proprietary formats, never listening to customers and trying to put others down(well that's just for microsoft)..

    its just not so easy to sustain the success, no matter how big you are, without the 'crowd' on your side...become a pinata and perish.

    google...hats off to u...'Do no evil' rocks...bigtime!!

  4. hats off to google.

    some people follow this motto...but only in words, but their actions show otherwise. sad.

  5. Yeah, it isn't "Do no evil".

  6. Depends on the definition of the word "be".

  7. Doesnt Google screen what searchers see in certain parts of the world? For Example in China when you google the Dali Lama only bad stuff arises. What side of the coin does that fall on...good?

  8. I've always interpreted Google's mantra as "don't abuse your power". For example, in the context of search results, don't accept money to promote some web pages.

  9. Well, if the "Don't be evil" motto has been working in the US (I doubt, I haven't seem that...), it doesn't seem to be working in the GOOG subsidiaries overseas.
    Besides GOOG cooperation with China's firewall of shame, my contacts in Brazil tell me that it was just proved that Alexandre Hohagen, CEO of Google Brazil, is involved on tampering search results, and the chasing and deletion of all the work, accumulated for years, of one of Brazil's most important newsman: Paulo Henrique Amorim.
    This guy, Paulo Henrique, had all his data deleted from his ISP, IG. IG is one of the partners of Google in Brazil, and is connected to a plot to overthrow the Brazilian government, articulated by corrupt officials from past administrations, that are afraid to be jailed as a result of the actual administration inquiries.
    So, seems like that at least in Brazil, GOOG motto is BE VERY EVIL...

  10. I wish someone would expose Google's evil. We make a considerable amount of money from Google Adsense but every day I see more and more instances of them being evil. Today I'm feeling particurally like we sleep with the devil.

    Oh well you either get off the G teet or embrace it wholeheartedly.

    Back to the teet