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Startup entrepreneurs have revolutionized America’s tech industry in the last twenty years. Corporations have taken root in garages, and old powers such as IBM and AT&T have seen their roles diminish at the hands of newcomers such as Google and Facebook. While many of these new companies admittedly start up in quest of money and financial success, many of them also blend in an element of anti-establishment rebellion directed at the old guard of American business. One such company is the now-famous Google, the worlds largest search engine. This company’s founders began with the hopes of attaining both financial success and moral confidence. While their actions did initially change the moral landscape of the technology industry, they eventually found themselves facing enormous ethical dilemmas as they began to uncontrollably morph into the very beast they had hoped to eradicate.
At the company’s outset, the founders adopted the corporate motto of “don’t be evil” as a guiding light for how their management should act on key strategic decisions. This mentality arose as a response to some of the turn of the century practices of tech giant Microsoft Corporation. As teenagers during the 80’s, the Google founders watched Microsoft make extensive use of predatory pricing, proprietary operating systems, and corporate strong-arming in order to make sure that their products stayed at the front of the market. Google set out to be the antithesis of what Microsoft had been. They still wanted to be the leader in their business, but they wanted to get there by beating the competition through fair and transparent business practices. Google exemplifies this mentality in the way that it treats its workers. They developed a phenomena called “20% time”, which means that twenty percent of any employee’s time can be used for working on something outside of the project to which they are assigned. This not only fosters good will among the employees, but also allows for innovative new products such as Gmail and Adsense to be developed by the Google staff. Additionally, the Google offices in Silicon Valley California are state of the art and geared toward employee satisfaction. The facilities are exceptionally well decorated and include a complementary cafeteria with full time world-class chefs. Despite all that Google does to appear as if they are the nice guys in the corporate game, their famous “don’t be evil” slogan would eventually be put to the test.
The moment of reckoning came when Google decided to expand its search business to China. The Chinese government wanted to appear welcoming to the popular western technology, but at the same time did not want the Chinese citizenry to be exposed to all of the information available on Google. They said that if Google wanted to enter China, the company would have to comply with China’s Operation Golden Shield project, essentially the national firewall. Google, eyeing profits, and claiming that “some access to our servers for the Chinese is better than no access” decided to enter China even though they would have to censor search results. This move went directly against one of Google’s founding principle on its website that claimed that Google would never “censor results for any search term.” Many critics such as Adam Green of the Huffington Post began to decry Google as “the next Microsoft” and “very evil” after the China incident. Due to all of the criticism and the lack of monetary success in China, Google later pulled out of the country. Today, the debate rages on as to whether Google is still that glossy eyed idealist company it once was, or whether it is the newest corporate brute waiting to be toppled by a motivated startup.
Personally, I do not believe that Google’s soul has reached a point of no return. Yes, they made a grave error in giving in to the demands of a repressive regime, but their core mission is still largely intact thanks to their support of free-of-charge programs such as Android and Google Docs. While anti-establishment “cool” may be difficult for a company with the scope and market capitalization of Google to pull off, I certainly do not see it as a reputation that is out of reach. Google merely has to make sure that at each fork in their decidedly bigger and more massive road they make their decisions honestly believing that they are doing no evil.