What does “don’t be evil” mean?

The European Commission – the executive body of the European Union – does not seem to have any intention to let Google go. After several years of antitrust investigations, charges and settlements it recently formally charged Google again (http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-15-4780_en.htm). The part that made me remember Google’s motto in the title of this post is the accusation that Google “systematically favors its own comparison shopping product (so called Google Shopping, L.G.) in its general search results pages”. The EC considers it an abuse of Google’s dominant position (in Europe Google serves 90% of search traffic, which is significantly higher than in the US), which stifles the competition and harms the consumer.

In its quick response (http://googleblog.blogspot.be/2015/04/the-search-for-harm.html) Google chose to focus on the competition part, which was the case for the most of previous accusations and really easy to defend against. They do not touch the side of the consumers much, however. What is not clear in either of the documents – the charge and the response – is that consumers here are actually two distinct groups of people and businesses: the consumers of the search results – the obvious group comprising the end users – and the not-so-obvious group of merchants selling and advertising their products online. The harm that Google’s approach may do to the merchants is quite obvious. As for the end users and their choices I can’t resist to mention another famous saying by Larry Page, also quoted in the response to the charge: “the perfect search engine should understand exactly what you mean and give you back exactly what you want.” Something’s missing… I guess it’s “and we will tell you what you mean and what you want”.

So, “don’t be evil”… Evil is a moral term and may mean a whole range of different things. For example, in Christianity, the simplest way to define being evil is doing something to someone that you wouldn’t want to be done to yourself. In our modern civilization, especially in the US, “don’t be evil” most of the time means “don’t break the law”. The further investigation and, perhaps, the court will decide if Google is indeed infringing any European antitrust rules, but for me, the exact meaning of Google’s motto is taking increasingly defined shape.

 

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