Unless you have been spelunking for several days, you have heard a lot more about Google recently than you ever wanted to know. (Of course, if you want to know even more, I invite you to check out my other blog where I have been writing about Google ever since the filing.) This event has attracted so much commentary because Google has provided so much fodder. Most importantly, the founders wrote a letter — “‘An Owner’s Manual’ for Google’s [Future] Shareholders” — that has struck a chord with many who fancy themselves as part of a “corporate social responsibility” movement. And no line in that letter has attracted more attention than this one: “Don’t Be Evil.”
Oddly, this line is applied to a fairly narrow aspiration — keeping search results untainted by advertising. That is not to say that Google is an ad-free zone, just that the ads are “relevant” and clearly labeled. When most people hear about the “Don’t Be Evil” line, however, I suspect that they think of bigger issues than untainted internet searches. They think about what comes in the next paragraph of the letter:
MAKING THE WORLD A BETTER PLACE
We aspire to make Google an institution that makes the world a better place. With our products, Google connects people and information all around the world for free. We are adding other powerful services such as Gmail that provides an efficient one gigabyte Gmail account for free. By releasing services for free, we hope to help bridge the digital divide. AdWords connects users and advertisers efficiently, helping both. AdSense helps fund a huge variety of online web sites and enables authors who could not otherwise publish. Last year we created Google Grants—a growing program in which hundreds of non-profits addressing issues, including the environment, poverty and human rights, receive free advertising. And now, we are in the process of establishing the Google Foundation. We intend to contribute significant resources to the foundation, including employee time and approximately 1% of Google’s equity and profits in some form. We hope someday this institution may eclipse Google itself in terms of overall world impact by ambitiously applying innovation and significant resources to the largest of the world’s problems.
Commentators have oohed and ahhed over this passage, but I am more jaded. The first part — the part about Google’s products “bridg[ing] the digital divide” — is not distinctive at all. Every corporate manager knows that the corporation benefits when people feel good about using its products and that people feel good about using the products when those products seem to be helping the poor or downtrodden.
The rest of the passage prompts two thoughts. First, every corporation gives substantial sums to charities. Second, the suggestion that Google is doing more of this than other corporations makes me wonder why people think this is a good thing. Presumably it isn’t because Larry Page and Sergey Brin (Google’s founders) are more adept at picking worthy charities than Google’s shareholders. Maybe people like the idea of Google’s money going to charity because they think that more money will flow to charity this way than through private donations? I have never heard anyone articulate this rationale for corporate giving. Then again, I don’t talk to people about this all that much.
When I do speak with someone about this, however, I sense a much different rationale for their support of corporate giving: somehow, this form of giving takes the edge off profit-making. Just as politicians who appear to care about the poor are more appealing than those who do not, so corporations that appear to be about something greater than profits are more appealing than those who are not.
There is another side to all of this. When politicians or corporate executives spend money on their favorite charities, they deprive each of us of the opportunity to use a share of that money in pursuit of our own sense of good. Now, it is possible that many or most of us would use our share for selfish purposes rather than for the benefit of the poor and afflicted, but isn’t it also possible that people would become more generous, more charitable, if given personal responsibility? Isn’t the erosion of community about which we hear so much in recent times at least partly due to the abdication of responsibility by individuals? Google’s founders may be noble and loving and good, but why should they have all the fun?