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Don't Be Evil: 5 Times Google was Evil

Google’s official unofficial motto, cited in their IPO filing and once the guiding principle of its engineers, is "Don’t Be Evil."

Google has since grown into a massive company filled with brilliant engineers who believe in that motto - but also filled with people willing to do whatever it takes to crush the competition and make more money. The search giant has grown beyond the starry-eyed ideals of the founders.

Here are five times that Google was evil, in direct opposition to their motto.

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Money Over Morals with Paid Inclusion

In which Google abandons the core principle against paid inclusion because - profit.

There is perhaps no better example of Google compromising its values in pursuit of profit than Google Shopping switching to a paid inclusion model – something Google itself publicly defined as Evil.

From the Google IPO Founders Letter, part of the IPO filing, in the "Don’t Be Evil" section:

"Our search results are the best we know how to produce. They are unbiased and objective, and we do not accept payment for them or for inclusion or more frequent updating."

Google Shopping is the product listing boxes or carousels in search results that include pictures of the products. It first launched as Froogle in 2002 as a 20% project and later was renamed Google Product Search.

Originally Google built the product listings by crawling the web, and later by having merchants submit a standardized product feed. Anyone could submit products, and Google’s algorithms tried to serve the best results (including best prices) of all the products available on the web.

In May 2012 Google radically changed direction, announcing that they would only show products of merchants that paid to be listed. Now instead of the algorithms showing the best products and prices on the web, it’s only showing those that paid to be there. Amazon famously refused to pay for these ads for years.

Quotes from their IPO filing:

"We do not accept money for search result ranking or inclusion. We do accept fees for advertising, but it does not influence how we generate our search results."

"Because we do not charge for inclusion in Froogle, our users can browse product categories or conduct product searches with confidence that the results we provide are relevant and unbiased."

Since abandoning this core Don’t Be Evil principle, Google has made tens of billions in Google Shopping revenue. Google has been and is continuing to make Google Shopping ads larger and more prominent to the point that there are now often no non-paid results at all visible on mobile without scrolling down.

In 2016 Google made over $90 billion, with 43% of ad clicks on Google Shopping results (note: not all of the $90 billion is from ads on Google – a massive chunk comes from AdSense ads. See the DoubleClick section for more).

Evil clearly pays very well.

Google Embraces Chinese Censorship

In which Google agrees to censor out facts that Chinese government doesn't want found in exchange for expanding the business into China

In pursuit of the massive Chinese market, Google agreed to censor their search results, subjugating their algorithms to the internet censorship policies of the Chinese Government’s Great Firewall of China. From January 2006 to March 2010 filtered search results to remove references to the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 and issues of Tibet and Taiwan independence, among other facts the government wanted suppressed.

Photo Credit: Marlanna - Creative Commons 2.0

The great algorithm compromise did not end well for Google.

The Chinese government supported Chinese search engine Baidu, using deliberately constructed outages to ensure that Google never gained too much market share. Then in 2009 the Chinese government attempted a series of hacks under Operation Aurora, targeting Google and other US companies. On Google’s end, the Chinese Poliburo-directed attacks were trying to access Gmail accounts of Chinese dissidents.

In response Google finally pulled out of China, stating that they were:

" longer willing to continue censoring our results on, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese Government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all."

On March 22, 2010, Google pulled the plug.

Knowingly Profiting from Illegal Advertising

In which Google executives knowingly aid illegal and counterfeit drug merchants.

Some things are illegal to advertise – often times these are things that are illegal. This can include refinancing scams and selling prescription drugs (often of dubious origin). Google profits enormously from these kinds of ads, and has actively worked with and helped these advertisers.

Example of pharmeceutical ads powered by Google

In August of 2009 the Department of Justice announced a staggering $500 million settlement of a criminal investigation for Google knowingly working with and actively assisting illegal pharmacies selling counterfeit drugs online through Google ads. The record size of the settlement reflects the fact that Google employees and high level executives - up to and including founder Larry Page - had direct knowledge of what was going on for years.

The US Attorney who led the investigation said:

"Larry Page knew what was going on. We know it from the investigation. We simply know it from the documents we reviewed, witnesses that we interviewed, that Larry page knew what was going on."

Under the settlement Google acknowledged that it improperly aided rogue pharmacies.

Unfortunately the exact details remain a mystery, since Google insisted as a condition of the settlement that the entire investigation be sealed and the records and testimony be unavailable to the public.

I think we can safely agree that this violates the Don't Be Evil doctrine.

Trading Principles for Profits with DoubleClick

In which Google abandons privacy principles to track everything you do online.

Google doesn’t just accept payment for ads on their search engine: they also take money for ads on any website that wants to advertise. Through its AdSense platform, any site can place Google code for banner ads on their site and Google will sell ads in that spot, splitting the profits with the website. Millions upon millions of websites do this.

But Google had limitations built into their AdSense platform: chief among them was that the tracking pixel only tracked behavior of people who clicked on the ad. They did not track – as they could have – every single user that visited any site with an ad on it. Further, they did not allow pixels that did so, including the DoubleClick pixel, which they declined to use.

That changed with their $3.1 billion acquisition of DoubleClick in 2007. Now Google changed their policy and removed the AdSense cookie entirely, replacing it with the DoubleClick cookie. Google now tracks every website you visit and everything they can about your behavior on those website – and combines it with all the information about everything you search for. This also enabled retargeting – ads from sites you visit that follow you around the web.

Google’s did add a nod to privacy in their privacy policy:

"We will not combine DoubleClick cookie information with personally identifiable information unless we have your opt-in consent."

Alas, in 2016 Google quietly removed the line. Now they say:

"…your activity on other sites and apps may be associated with your personal information in order to improve Google’s services and the ads delivered by Google."

Meaning that all the information DoubleClick collects about you can be combined with info from Gmail, Google Docs, and other tools.

Of course, not even opting out is a guarantee that Google won’t track you. In 2012 Google paid a $22.5 million settlement with the FTC for placing a DoubleClick tracking pixel on Safari users when Google assured those users that they would be automatically opted out of 3rd party tracking pixels due to Safari’s policies.

I will leave you here with this chilling quote from Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt:

"With your permission, you give us more information about you, about your friends, and we can improve the quality of our searches. We don't need you to type at all. We know where you are. We know where you've been. We can more or less know what you're thinking about."

Stealing Competitor Data & Suppressing Competition

In which Google steals competitor information to populate its own sites, then automatically ranks its own sites above the competitors, and then avoids an antitrust lawsuit.

Google’s public battles around stealing Yelp’s content for its own sites is the stuff of legend – though Yelp isn’t the only company whose data Google appropriated.

In 2009 Google was in talks to acquire Yelp. The deal fell through. Yelp says they didn’t feel Google would take good care of Yelp, particularly after a call from Steve Jobs and so turned Google down. Google said it cut off the talks.

Later that year Google launched Place Pages, which became Google Places in 2010. This was their own local review platform. If Google detected local intent to searches, it automatically put its own Google Places at the top of the results, above Yelp and other competitors that have to earn their position in Google's algorithm. This and other issues led to a FTC investigation of anti-competitive practices.

But the problem was that Google’s own results were pretty thin: they didn’t have reviews of most local businesses and restaurants. To solve this they just took Yelp’s reviews and put them into the Google Places results. When Yelp complained, Google told them that they could either accept it, or have Yelp removed entirely from all of Google.

Yelp wasn’t alone in this treatment: TripAdvisor and even Amazon felt the deft fingers of Google lifting their data from their pockets. The FTC investigation found that Google copied Amazon’s sales rankings to rank its own items (in Google Shopping), as well as copying Amazon’s review ratings.

Accidentally leaked reports from the FTC investigation found that:

"[Google's] conduct has resulted – and will result – in real harm to consumer and to innovation in the online search and advertising markets."

They further stated that Google’s conduct:

"helped it to maintain, preserve and enhance Google’s monopoly position in the markets for search and search advertising" in violation of the law. Google’s behavior "will have lasting negative effects on consumer welfare."

The initial report recommended the commission bring a lawsuit against Google.

In 2013 the FTC commissioners (not the people who conducted the investigation and wrote the preliminary report) unanimously voted to drop the investigation, saying:

"The conclusion is clear: Google’s services are good for users and good for competition."

In negotiating to prevent the anti-trust lawsuit, Google did agree to provide a way for competitor to opt out of having Google take their data for Google’s own products, but did not make any agreements on other anti-competitive practices surfaced in the investigation. Many have pointed to Google's lobbying budget and close connections to government to explain how the FTC's public statements and actions were so opposite of the leaked report.

50 Shades of Google

These five examples of Google violating their Don't Be Evil motto aren't the only ones out there. Other things include tax avoidance, copyright violations, hiding referral data (unless paid for), crushing competition and others. But the dark side of Google is not the whole picture. Google has also done tremendous good for the world.

Google is too large now to paint with a simple good or evil brush. Google is a multi-headed hydra, with dozens of heads doing great things making the world a better place and holding to the original founders' vision, and dozens more heads doing whatever it takes to win and dominate the competition no matter the methods.

And speaking of being good being versus evil, this site is actually designed for the express purpose of doing meaningful good in the world. Check out the home page to learn how this site is attempting to leverage Google and SEO to make the world a better place.

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