Abstract: Google's "Don't Be Evil" Motto: Implications for the Ethical Cultures of Internet Businesses

Jo Ann Oravec


The corporate motto "don't be evil" often associated with Google has generated considerable controversy about the social and cultural impacts of search engines as well as those of other Internet-related businesses. After addressing the origins of "don't be evil," this manuscript positions the motto in the historical context of the various kinds of ethical codes and statements that are associated with computer networking. The manuscript then describes how the motto played a role in discourse on issues related to Google's operations, exploring how the motto was employed in discussions of advertising-related situations as well as international disputes. An assortment of ethical dimensions of search engines has been considered in the light of the "don't be evil" motto, including the fairness and legitimacy of various information-related practices. Analyses of how corporate mottos are utilized in viewing organizational activity can be useful for corporations that wish to frame more precisely their ethical positions and assumptions. Internet-related corporations often have only a short timeframe for establishing reputations and setting ethical tones, and clues to their corporate culture can be vital. The manuscript provides a sampling of the many "copycat" corporate mottos (take-offs on "don't be evil") that have had some influence in high-tech organizations. It ends with a discussion of the issue of whether a "large-grained" corporate motto as a cultural object can indeed serve to supply social and ethical guidance, as opposed to a complex, detailed code of ethics or comparable attempt at moral clarification.