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Earlier this morning, Blake Ross, who was the lightening rod who re-ignited the dying Netscape platform and came up with Firefox, released a “don’t be evil” browser extension. The tool essentially allows you to see Google results with social media inputs from Facebook and Twitter and other (if somewhat irrelevant) social networks like MySpace, rather than just those from Google+.
The extension is essentially a way to expose the shortcomings of Google search results, now that the results include social sharing input from Google’s own social network (loosely speaking), Google+. It is an interesting thought experiment, though it is hard for me to ignore the fact that it comes from Facebook. Oh, did I mention Ross is Facebook’s Director of Product? As John Battelle points out
I mean, it’s one thing for a lone hacktivist to do this, it’s quite another for a member of the Internet Big Five to publicly call Google out. Facebook would need to vet this with legal, with management (this clearly had to pass muster with Mark Zuckerberg), and, I was told, Facebook wanted to reach out to others – such as Twitter – and get their input as well.
The pot calling the kettle black
Sure, today the extension is being pitched as a piece of software that was collectively cobbled together by engineers from Twitter, MySpace and Facebook. (Twitter says two people worked on the software, though it wouldn’t say for how long, or how much of the final code was their contribution.) Of course, as Battelle points out, the extension was originally a Facebook/Blake Ross production. It now has a new home on the web: Focus On The User.
That is rich, considering Facebook’s record on serving the interests — and protecting the privacy — of its users has more twists and turns than a tapeworm. When it comes to privacy and putting users first, Facebook, depending on how you look at it, is either morally ambiguous or just plain shallow.
Once upon a time, “don’t be evil” meant something
There was a time, back in its early days, Google sure was a true believer in its “don’t be evil” motto. Not any more. Google, too, speaks from both sides of its mouth. Any search engine that runs advertisements from clinics promoting pre-natal gender tests is the personification of wrongdoing. And that is but one example.
Either way, what I am saying is that “don’t be evil” is not a product or a slogan or a tagline to recruit employees. From the way I see it, it has to be a belief system for a company. It is a defining attribute of the company and its larger mission. It is a moral lens through which a company makes its decisions. It is about doing the right thing for the end customers.
I think somewhere down the line, Google forgot that its customers are us, the people and decided that advertisers were its customers. Otherwise, why else would it force the Google+ search results on web searchers. Dave Winer put it best when he wrote:
I really don’t like the way Google search is going. It’s becoming more and more laden with strategy taxes. It’s being designed more and more for their competitors, rather than for their users (us) or their customers (the advertisers).
Just like Google, Facebook cannot brandish “don’t be evil” lightly. Instead of putting us the people first, Facebook makes no bones about using all our data, sacrificing our privacy, in an effort to create a system to sell us advertising. So when they name an extension “Don’t Be Evil,” I am sorry, but I do get riled up.
Doing the right thing and finding a business model and obeying Wall Street’s motto of “always be growing” is a balancing act that is hard. It needs corporate leaders who indeed are believers — and so far, despite the lip service, both Facebook and Google have failed that test.
My colleague Mathew Ingram puts it best when he writes:
The reality of this ongoing battle is that both sides have shown they are more than happy to criticize others for being closed or proprietary or otherwise unfair, at the same time as they themselves favor their own content or services, lock up their data or otherwise use their market position to strong-arm their competitors. “Don’t be evil” is a knife that cuts in multiple directions, and both Google and Facebook need to be careful about how — and where — they wave it around.