Google’s unofficial motto, “Don’t Be Evil,” could be expressed as easily in the positive, “Be Fair.” The premise to which the company’s founders refer frequently – the notion that information should be easily accessible and freely available – describes the essence of fairness. Google stresses its meritocratic culture. The company hires and promotes people on the basis of their capabilities rather than their background or experience. Again, the essence of fairness.
Don’t Be Evil is actually only a translation of one small part of the official Google philosophy, which is summed up in 10 points on the company’s website:
1. Focus on the user and all else will follow.
2. It’s best to do one thing really, really well.
3. Fast is better than slow.
4. Democracy on the web works.
5. You don’t need to be at your desk to need an answer.
6. You can make money without doing evil.
7. There’s always more information out there.
8. The need for information crosses all borders.
9. You can be serious without a suit.
10. Great just isn’t good enough.
The company is regularly recognized as one of the world’s best companies to work for, by Fortune magazine among others. Fortune has also named it one of the world’s “Most Admired Companies.” In Fortune’s 2010 list it was ranked second right behind Apple.
Of course the company has its critics. In many parts of the world Google’s open access model is considered a vehicle for alien values: capitalism, liberalism, and immorality. Journalists believe some of the company’s practices violate their intellectual property rights by reproducing their work without paying for it. Media companies sometimes complain that the search program’s valuation of content devalues high-quality analysis and opinion in favor of the sensationalistic and the popular.
And some of the information so highly valued by Google is information about individuals. The giant communications company is looking everywhere, all the time, for clues to make its searches, its maps, its photos and stories more relevant and useful. In the process it sometimes looks into people’s private lives. Most recently Google collected about 600 gigabytes worth of users’ emails, passwords and other “tidbits of information” from computers hooked up to wireless networks. When something like that happens, Google says it happens accidentally. As Google becomes more powerful, the concern that it might use its insights to exploit individuals becomes more troubling.
Founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page have accumulated great wealth over the past decade or so. They have also made thousands of their employees wealthy. When the company went public in 2004, at least 1,000 Google employees became millionaires on paper, including the woman who had been the company’s masseuse for five years. Brin emigrated from Russia when he was 6 and grew up in middle-class Maryland. Page came from a middle-class family in East Lansing, Michigan. Both founders have parents who are professors in technical fields and both went to Montessori schools.
In other words Brin and Page had intellectual advantages but no particular economic advantages.
Through it’s own nonprofit, Google.org, Google Inc. has pledged to contribute 1 percent of its equity and profits to charity “to address some of the world’s most urgent problems.”
A single percentage point of its leviathan profits might not seem overly generous but it added up to about $100 million in grants and investments over the nonprofit’s first six years. As a percentage it is below average. The average big corporation tracked in the U.S. over the past 40 years gave about 1.2 percent of its profits away. U.S. individuals gave away about 1.8 percent of their income over the same period.
The unanswerable question remains: Is it ever fair for anyone to have billions of dollars in net worth, private jets, palatial homes and an excess of every personal resource in a world where other people lack sufficient food, just because they were born in a poor part of the world?
Perhaps not. But Google has succeeded in a game with clearly defined rules and it has, apparently, played by those rules. The company’s founders have become wealthy by playing the game of business more astutely than their competitors. Their employees have prospered.
Inarguably, Google has been a powerful engine for creating prosperity. Search engines like Google have made information more widely available than ever before. If its inventors hadn’t seen an opportunity to become wealthy, would the Internet be as efficient and useful? Probably not. Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Apple were all built in a capitalistic society by entrepreneurs out to make a bundle. That wasn’t an accident. Economic incentives compel human creativity and innovation.