When Google’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, came up with the slogan Don’t be evil, it seemed to reflect their company’s status as a benign superpower, intent on doing good for mankind. To an enormous extent that is still true.
When Page and Brin wrote a letter on the eve of the company’s IPO in 2004, it contained the following sentences:
“Google users trust our systems to help them with important decisions: medical, financial and many others,” the letter read. “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 … We believe it is important for everyone to have access to the best information and research, not only to the information people pay for you to see.”
Then, when Alphabet became Google’s parent company in 2015, it enjoined its employees and its subsidiaries and controlled affiliates to “do the right thing—follow the law, act honorably, and treat each other with respect.”
Today, The Times reports that “Google pays academics millions for key support.” These academics, in the USA and the UK (including Oxford and Edinburgh universities) were, it is claimed, paid to produce articles that Google hoped would be favourable to Google’s interests. There are even claims of some collusion between academics and Google and “Much of the research made arguments in Google’s favour.”Some of the academics, whom The Times names, did not declare the funding from Google. The payments made to the authors ranged between $5,000 and $400,000.
Furthermore, The Times also states,“On one occasion Eric Schmidt, Google’s former chief executive, cited a Google-funded author in written answers to Congress to back his claim that his company was not a monopoly —without mentioning that it had paid for the paper, the investigation found.”
Don’t be evil? Do the right thing? Our results are the best we know how to produce…. unbiased and objective? Really?
No-one with any knowledge of academia would be naïve enough to think that it’s somehow different or in some way immune to the foibles and follies that characterise the rest of the professional and business world, or indeed mankind writ large. The same applies to companies: there are always individuals who will try to bend the rules for commercial gain. Any company or institution that is perceived to be behaving in an underhand way, whether or not it actually has, is courting trouble. When you add in the recent humungous fine that Google has been hit with by the EU (which they are appealing against), it seems that there are what the tennis commentators at Wimbledon would call too many unforced errors. Google needs to get its act together. Global dominance is not easy to achieve, but it is relatively easy to lose. Business history is littered with the wrecks of one-time giants. However, it will be interesting to see where The Times ranks in your next Google search!