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Don’t Be Evil is not a slogan nor a browser extension

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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 evilbrowser 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 goingIt’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.

15 Responses to “Don’t Be Evil is not a slogan nor a browser extension”

  1. Alain Wong

    Here’s the official video response from social search startup Wajam, which builds on top of Blake Ross’ extension concept:

    We take the idea one step further by giving you personal results from friends, not just the public social web. In the end, as you said, it’s about doing the right thing for the customer.

    In our case, we believe in the freedom of choice, and we think users get more value from social results when these results include all the social networks of their choosing.

  2. Om thanks so much for smacking around the irony of this whole deal, nice work! The litmus test with this as with any sort of product based issue is that ultimately free will reigns and you can go elsewhere to get your search requirements met!

  3. Wait a minute! How the heck is Google evil for not including Twitter and FB data in search results? Did Twitter and FB ask to be included and Google say no? Heck no! In fact, Twitter and FB EXPLICITLY ask to not be included in Google search results. Is Google including only G+ results and excluding all other social data from non-Twitter and non-FB sources? Heck no, AGAIN! Google gladly includes relevant data from all sources which allow themselves to be indexed. You guys know how search engines work, right? By calling Google evil in this context, you are playing right into Twitter’s and FB’s PR. And no, doing some token FB bashing doesn’t excuse you. You are playing a dangerous game with this type of unfair writing that willfully ignores facts. You are the ones being evil in this context by calling ‘wolf’, where there is none.

  4. The one point being left out here is that Google loves to trumpet it’s “Don’t be Evil” philosophy.

    Facebook on the other hand pretty openly says that you should share ALL your data on Facebook, like their Advertisers, allow them to “be a little evil”.

    Stick to your philosophy or you’ll be called out, even though it might be by a hypocrite.

  5. Therese Torris

    Great post. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Google & Co should drop the pretense that they know better than anyone else what’s the greater good. They should more seriously the responsibilities that come with leadership, and even more in the context of a monopoly or oligopoly. As leaders they must listen and be accountable to the industry and to the public they serve.

  6. Impartial Observer

    Wait, how is Google being evil? Did Facebook and Twitter ask to be included in search results and Google said “no”? Merely placing Facebook anywhere near Google on the good to evil spectrum is being excessively charitable towards Facebook.

  7. Donald Frazier

    Many angles to this, one of which is how the ethic of the individual, altruistic, never-for-profit hacker has been appropriated by some very large, intensely-competitive organizations. It’s no surprise that they’d want to use it as a fig leaf, as if Facebook’s board would have no problem with a guy like Ross devising a new product with major strategic implications just to do good, all on his own.

    But I am surprised at people in these positions, with these skills, going along with a pretense like this.

    But I do wonder

  8. It would be quite a marketing coup if one of these three companies actually ran with the Don’t Be Evil credo, and codified principles about HOW they’re committed to living it with consumers, developers and partners, but unfortunately, this game is about platitudes and not actual practices.

  9. The point about ‘the pot calling the kettle black’ doesn’t really apply to this. Facebook and twitter don’t place themselves on a pedestal. Google does place itself on a pedestal and has now been caught out. That’s what matters.

    It’s not that Google is any worse than Facebook, it’s that it shouldn’t be perceived as somehow morally superior when it engages in these tactics and misinforms the public about them.

    The chief complaint isn’t that they’re using search to favor their own services, it’s that they continue to deny it. See Eric Schmidt’s comments from last week:

    • “It’s not that Google is any worse than Facebook, it’s that it shouldn’t be perceived as somehow morally superior when it engages in these tactics and misinforms the public about them.”

      This exactly sums up the true goals here, and why facebook management would approve such a thing: marketing. Facebook is tired of competing, so they wait long enough after their last failed attempt at “subtle” anonymous PR and tried this new thing.

      “We aren’t saying its bad! We’re just saying you can’t say it’s good at the same time.”

      Oh yeah, you’re a real beacon for humanity.

  10. Tremaine
    Is about time someone mentioned “The pot calling the kettle black”. I wonder how many of these companies are either
    A. Jealous
    B. Pissed they couldn’t figure out how to do it themselves (because they know they would)
    C. Wish they were in a position to do the same thing Google is doing. Hence Google is a search engine first. Then a browser. Facebook and Twitter and the likes aren’t. Firefox in my opinion can just never quite get it together.

    Is Google out of control forcing everything on everyone – Yes. I do agree Google is doing too much too soon. It really does feel like a massive overload, trying to take over and bully it’s way. But to make a switch to something else as far as I’m concerned at some point it’s just inevitable should this somehow in some strange twilight zone way work out for Google. Meaning everyone else is going to want to do it. But to start out as a search engine, it’s kind of impressive how much and far they’ve gone. Yahoo never pulled off any of this stuff. But I don’t buy for minute that Twitter, Facebook and whoever else wants to join the party are that into the user and quality.

    My advice – switch browsers, switch search engines and whatever else you’ve got to do.

    I am tired of the info, social overload or what feels like it. But frankly I chose to ignore and wait til this either blows over or someone come up with something better.

    One thing is for sure, I’m going to have to adapt to something.

  11. Great article. One debatable point is who are Google’s customers. The article states it’s ‘the people’ not ‘the advertisers’. As advertisers pay money for services they are of course Google customers – this is equally true of Facebook and other platforms that make money through advertising revenue. Users are provided a free service and are still in my view customers, they are also fundamental to the attractiveness of the service to advertisers – a cynical viewpoint could be that they are therefore part of the product?

    • Peter,

      Thanks for your very thoughtful comment. From the way I see it, it used to the web searchers who were Google’s customers — especially prior to the IPO. Since then things have indeed changed drastically. I am not saying don’t do advertising — just not make decisions that are skewed and forced down the throats of end-users.