Is it 'evil' that Google wants to change society?

Google co-founder Larry Page Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Google co-founder Larry Page has grand ambitions for his company

In 1998 Google was founded with a mission to "organise the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful". But the company's co-founder and chief executive Larry Page recently said in an interview with Richard Waters of the Financial Times that it might be time to retire that sentiment to make room for new endeavours.

"A reorganisation in recent days has shifted responsibility for much of his company's current business to a lieutenant and left him with room to indulge his more ambitious urges," Waters writes. "The message: the world's most powerful internet company is ready to trade the cash from its search engine monopoly for a slice of the next century's technological bonanza."

For Mr Page, this new technological boom could look a lot like science fiction, with advances in areas such as artificial intelligence and biotechnology.

But some privacy advocates worry that ditching the official mission statement means throwing out the unofficial one as well.

Shortly after the Financial Times interview was published, the Guardian and Gizmodo UK both ran articles with headlines reporting that Google was leaving "don't be evil" behind. Both outlets have since issued corrections.

Waters' article seems to imply that Page views early Google's "don't be evil" refrain as quaint, but Slate's Lily Hay Newman says she disagrees with the executive.

"There's nothing simple or unsophisticated about the phrase," she writes. "It's a bold mandate, one other big companies haven't had the guts to operate under, not because it's reductive, but because they worry they can't live up to it."

Newman writes that if Google ever moved away from the catchy slogan, it would mean acknowledging that it is an impossible task, even if they didn't mean it that way. She says it would be significant if they left that idea behind in favour of advancing technology or grappling with sweeping societal issues.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Self-driving cars are one of Google's early forays into transformative technological innovation

"'Don't be evil' is one of the best things about Google, simultaneously presenting the important idea that a company not take itself too seriously and an acknowledgment of the potentially corrupting power that Google strove to acquire," she writes.

It doesn't seem that Mr Page is looking to move away from what he sees as Google's noble purpose; he just wants to widen the scope.

"We're in a bit of uncharted territory," Waters quotes Mr Page as saying in his article. "We're trying to figure it out. How do we use all these resources ... and have a much more positive impact on the world?"

This sentiment echoes 2012 remarks by the company's other co-founder, Sergey Brin.

"I'm not sure we have to rush out and change our mission statement," Mr Brin said to reporters at a Google conference. "In general, I think our mission is to use technology to really change the world for the better."

But there are many still left with concerns.

Just like any other company, Google's success relies on its ability to attract users, which in turn attracts advertisers and gives the company data on those users, writes Leo Mirani for Quartz.

"The definition of evil, then, rests on what would be bad for users," he writes. "Or, to be more precise, on what Google thinks is bad for users. It would also, by extension be bad for Google. The moral compass and the interests of the business point in the same direction."

Mirani writes that Google can always rest on the argument that it's only acting in the best interests of its users by gobbling up their information, essentially redefining the word "evil" to mean anything they're not doing.

"In other words, Google simply cannot do evil so long as it believes it is not doing evil," he writes.

CNET's Chris Matyszczyk writes that Google could genuinely mean what it says about trying to organise the world's information, even if others don't see it that way. But that doesn't make the future look any less troublesome.

"[Page's] vision isn't purely technical, it's socio-political," he writes.

Rather than just be a technology company, he says, Google is aiming to change how all of society works - which by extension means how human minds work. Keeping that in mind, he sardonically offers the company some potential new mission statements.

"How about: 'We'll work everything out. You just sit and wait for us to tell you what to do,'" he writes. "Or maybe: 'Making a world a rational place, and, boy, wouldn't that be so much better?' Or even: 'We want to be God. Please don't tell him, he'll think we're evil.'"

Google's current company philosophy says that they firmly believe they can make money without doing evil.

But just because they can, doesn't mean that they will.

(By Kierran Petersen)

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