In Anthony Burgess’ seminal work, he wrote that man is born with the capacity to choose both good and evil; when you take one of those choices away, “he ceases to be a wrongdoer. He ceases also to be a creature capable of moral choice”.
Daniel Henninger looks at how Google’s self-proclaimed “Don’t be evil” philosphy is doing these days:
Google, as it was born into the world, announced the good news that the company’s creed was, “Don’t be evil.” From day one the whole Internet enterprise has been similarly goggle-eyed about itself. Read any of the many doctrinal statements on behalf of the Internet or attend one of its constant symposiums, such as the two U.N.-sponsored World Summits on the Information Society held since 2003 and at every turn you will find the language of “revolutionary transformation.” Here’s Principle No. 1 from the 2003 World Information Summit: “We, the representatives of the peoples of the world . . . declare our common desire and commitment to build a people-centered, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society, where everyone can create,” etc., etc. And stage global rampages.
What God told Adam and Eve was essentially “Don’t be evil.” So Google, Yahoo and the rest of the Internet community have time to discover the tough moral complexities of life outside the electronic garden. That said, there are strong reasons for supporting the Internet industry’s innocents abroad. An important mutuality of interests exists between these idealists and the traditionalists they so often seek to displace.
Start with the idea of being free to express one’s political views anywhere in any way, a no-brainer on Planet WebWorld. But it appears that several hundred million or so Muslim inhabitants of Planet Earth aren’t fully invested yet in one of the most foundational political ideas of Western thought, dating back at least to Milton’s “Areopagitica.” Today government systems to filter, block or punish politics on the Internet exist not only in China but throughout the Middle East, notably in Iran, one of the heaviest Web-using nations in the world.
The age-old tendency of governments to monitor and regulate behavior, however, has never been limited to speech. In his congressional testimony, Google’s Elliot Schrage raised the “matter of business.” After noting that China is an “important market” and that Google’s competitors are there, he said: “It would be disingenuous to say that we don’t care about that because, of course, we do. We are a business with stockholders, and we want to prosper and grow in a highly competitive world. At the same time, acting ethically is a core value for our company, and an integral part of our business culture.”
The principle of “acting ethically” is a primary value among people who think about making rules for the Internet, and that’s fine. But they and Internet companies like Google are making what they seem to think are special claims for their moral status–as something new that “transforms” any society they touch for the better. If so, then Wal-Mart, Exxon or McDonald’s, indeed the entire globalizing enterprise, are entitled to make much the same claim. Google with a market cap floating around $108 billion can’t purport that it is significantly different than any of the other capitalists that were trashed by anti-globalists on the streets of Seattle and Genoa.
The Internet fraternity conveys a persona of being really nice, really smart people who want to be open and creative and . . . good. The scent of moral condescension to “old” structures hangs heavily in the air. So it’s more than ironic to see executives from Google and Yahoo subjected to morally absolutist criticism from politicians and pundits over attempting to do business in the Chinese market. Google’s share price is under enough critical pressure just now without thinking about grandly withdrawing from China’s 111 million Internet-user market.
Ah well–maybe Google’s motto should be, “Let them use photocopiers!”