Google is the great Internet God of goodness, or so claims No. 6 of the company’s “10 Things” corporate philosophy list: “You can make money without doing evil.” But this week, Google has suddenly put its doing no evil claims in doubt.
Yesterday, Google launched social networking service Buzz with opt-out privacy settings, meaning that a user’s list of followers and followees are fully viewable in Google Profile, by default. Unrelated, but by Twitter — ah, buzz — standards even more evil: Google deleted six popular music blogs hosted at its Blogger service.
How evil these actions are — and others coming later in this post — depends on viewpoint. To whom is Google’s first obligation? Itself? Its shareholders? Or its customers?
By the viewpoint of customer standards, opt-out privacy and blog deletion — without forewarning, I should emphasize — are evil acts. Google absolutely is making money while doing evil. Plain, pure and simple. The blog deletions, whether or not justified by DCMA take-down notices, are also the worst kind of public relations. People love their music, and they rally behind the underdog — David standing before Goliath. The blog deletions are worse than evil. They’re stupid.
How about Buzz, which requires users to opt-out of exposing followers and followees rather than opting-in to make the information public? While various news sites and blogs have suggested the opt-out approach could expose, say, secret relationships (like that girlfriend you were boxing on the side), I immediately thought about China. There, Google is making a stand against censorship (supposedly). Because Buzz doesn’t self-censor by default, new users in China could expose dissident relationships to government investigators. Buzz uses Gmail to auto-generate follower lists. Whoops.
Buzz privacy also is as much stupid as evil, because of the negative buzz generated over the past 24 hours. Example news headlines or blog titles demonstrate how much:
- Google Buzz is a dirty snitch, Gizmodo
- Google Buzz leaves privacy concerns ringing in our ears, The Register
- WARNING: Google Buzz has a huge privacy flaw, Silicon Alley Insider
- Google Buzz’s big privacy problem — cheaters start worrying now, Electricpig
But the customer is only viewpoint. There is Google itself and taking actions for its benefit over customers. The blog deletions and Buzz privacy approach seem to put Google before the customer. As YouTube popularity increases and Google negotiates more deals to offer legal, commercial content — such as TV shows and movie rentals or sales — there is increasing pressure to respond to DCMA take-down requests.
Then there is the return on investment in Blogger, which is a free service anyway, to consider. Google risks more by losing paying content than it gains by defending presumably infringing content on a free service (Although one could argue that Google could delete offending music like it removes soundtracks from infringing YouTube videos without wiping out whole blogsites). The point: Google put its own interests before customers. Is that doing evil?
Buzz privacy is even more about putting Google interests before customers. Buzz clearly is designed to compete with Facebook, Twitter and other real-time social services. Buzz can’t generate buzz without users. By auto-generating follower lists from Gmail and making them publicly viewable, Google increases the means by which Buzz can scale users faster. Facebook now has more than 400 million subscribers — 100 million of them from mobile devices. Buzz needs to quickly scale, which wouldn’t happen as fast by taking an opt-in approach. Is putting Google’s interests before customers evil?
Shareholders are the third viewpoint — that Google put the interest of shareholders first by its approach to the music blog deletions and to Buzz privacy. Google’s shareholder priority is simple: Make money — return value back to shareholders, who are the company’s owners. From that perspective, these actions were good, because they put shareholders first. But from a yet another perspective, the actions could be argued as being evil since the two largest shareholders are Google’s energetic cofounders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, whose voting control is 59 percent. They are the major beneficiaries of any action that makes money for Google. But is that really evil?
The answer is yes, by Google’s own philosophic standards. Google’s first of the 10 Things: “Focus on the user and all else will follow.” The statement strongly suggests that the customer is top priority. But the blog deletions and Buzz privacy options don’t “focus on the user.” They arguably violate the user — and in the case of the music sites the millions of users who lost access to the blogs. No. 2: “It’s best to do one thing really, really well.” Google further explains: “We do search…Our dedication to improving search helps us apply what we’ve learned to new products, like Gmail and Google Maps.” OK, how does having a blogging service — and one where blogs are deleted without notice — “improving search” or doing “one thing really, really well”?
Then there is Buzz, which like many other Google products or services — including Apps, Blogger, Chrome, Picasa or Reader — is another thing, not one done well. Some other Google services enhance search or use search to enhance something else (like book search or mobile mapping), but Google has gone way beyond doing “one thing really, really well.”
Protectionism as Evil Behavior
There is a fourth viewpoint. As Google grows and extends a monopoly over advertising and Web search, priorities change — as they did with Microsoft, for example. Microsoft the growth company behaved differently than Microsoft the mature company. Monopolies seek to preserve their status quo and as such they chase every competitive threat. During the second half of the last decade, the majority of Microsoft online services followed something Google did first. Then there are Google services that potentially threaten Microsoft products. Example: Google launched Apps. Microsoft responded with Office online services and soon Office Web Apps.
Buzz, and also Google Wave, are in part responses to Facebook and Twitter, but mainly Facebook. Protectionism will lead Google to evil, at least by someone’s measure, and to making stupid decisions (like opt-out default for Buzz). Why? Because they’re reactionary. Competitive reaction can lead innovating companies away from responding to customers, or even to shareholders. Microsoft is one example of how reactionary business practices are simply bad business.
Microsoft went from being viewed as an innovator (doing good) to being perceived as quashing innovation (doing bad). Google stands at the precipice that most monopolies come to. Does Google operate by its principles — the 10 Things — dilute them or adopt new ones?
In closing, I ask Betanews readers: How good or evil do you see Google? In November, I aske:d “How would you rewrite Google’s ’10 Things?” Please answer either or both questions in comments.