Google has been waiting for years to put Don't Be Evil out of its misery

  • Google downgraded its famous “Don’t Be Evil” adage in its employee code of conduct
  • The move has been a long time coming.

Remember Don’t Be Evil?

When Google became a verb in the early 2000s, the adage became a slogan that paid dividends for the tech company.

Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin enshrined it in the company’s official code of conduct for employees, and inumerable news stories and TV segments gushed over the benevolent tech giant’s admirable combination of innovation and altruism.

At some point during the past month that changed. As Gizmodo first reported on Friday, the famous phrase has lost its preeminence in Google’s code of conduct. The new code of conduct makes a passing, almost token, mention of Don’t Be Evil in the last sentence – but it’s a marked downgrade from its previous prominence in the code, when it had several paragraphs dedciated to it.

Google argues that the fact that the phrase remains in the code, albeit at the end, shows that it’s still “foundational.”

Fair enough.

Here’s the reality though: Google outgrew its Don’t Be Evil motto from the moment it was coined.

The phrase was never meant to be a declaration of human rights. It was coined by former Googler Paul Buchheit, who has said that he had shady internet business practices like spyware and spam in mind when he came up with it.

But the world wanted to see it as someting grander. And Google never did much to disabuse anyone of the notion. The warm and fuzzy glow Google got from Don’t Be Evil was too valuable to quit, even as it became increasingly clear to anyone that worked at the company that the phrase was dangerous. It set a standard that Google, or any for-profit company, could never live up to.

Google makes its money from targeted ads that rely on knowing as much about us as possible. Every single product in its catalogue, from virtual assistants that tell you the weather to AI-based email that can finish your sentences for you, ultimately lead to showing you better, more effective ads.

The project has grown into something so extensive and vast that the company now has its hands in everything from hardware to automobiles. It’s tough to position youreself as the Don’t Be Evil company when you’re building products with components that use rare earth minerals and are assembled by laborers in offshore factories you don’t control; or when you offer online services in countries with repressive free speech rules.

The 2015 restructuring of Google into Alphabet was the first effort to move away from the problematic legacy phrase.

Now, like characters crowding the bed of a dying Count in a Russian novel, Google and its shareholders are waiting for Don’t Be Evil to draw its final breath. After all these years, Google can finally claim its inheritance.

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