When Google abandoned its former mantra, “Don’t be evil,” last year, the motto had already become something of a joke.
It originated in 2004, in a statement from the Google founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, as the company prepared to go public. At the time, it was seen as a barb to Microsoft, often cast as Goliath to Google’s David, and which was sometimes described as “the evil empire” in Silicon Valley.
“Don’t be evil” was also, depending on whom you asked, naive at best and suspicious at worst. (If you need to remind yourself not to be evil, of all things, in your corporate slogan, perhaps something has already gone terribly wrong.) Or maybe it was just a sunny branding quip: Brin and Page said they wanted to do good, to change the world, to make it a better place.
It’s understandable, then, that the mantra naturally begged the question: Is Google evil, after all? (“‘Don’t be evil’ is an invitation to debate,” the Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt said in 2008. “It means we will fight over what it means.”)
Perhaps a ramped-up lobbying presence in Washington was evidence of blossoming evil. Or Google’s willingness to comply with Chinese censors. Or when Google combed through the contents of Gmail users’ inboxes so it could serve them relevant advertising. Or its business model, which is based on turning people’s data into profit. Or, when, between 2008 and 2010, Google collected massive troves of data—emails, user names, passwords, documents, images—from unsecured wifi networks. “Google policy is to get right up to the creepy line,” Schmidt once told The Atlantic, “and not cross it.”