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Not Even a Little Evil

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A top story from Ars Technica was making the rounds through Digg and Reddit yesterday, bashing Google for being a "little evil." The charge is based on an unusual case, where Google helped Indian police nab Rahul Krishnakumar Vaid, an IT professional living near New Delhi, for posting disparaging messages about Sonia Gandhi on an Orkut group. Vaid was charged under section 292 of Indian Penal Code and section 67 of the Information Technology Act, for posting disparaging, "vulgar" content about Gandhi in a group entitled "I Hate Sonia Gandhi." The creator of the group, interestingly, was not charged.

While the law may be outrageous in its limitation of free speech (my opinion), Google's response to it was far from. And it certainly wasn't evil. If Google wants to operate in India, their local branch must follow local laws. And while everyone seems to claim that Google's actions in this case, and in the infamous case of Chinese censorship, violated their motto of "Don't Be Evil," it seems that very few people actually read Google's explanation of their de facto motto. According to Google's Code of Conduct, "'Don't be evil' is...about doing the right thing more generally – following the law." Google can choose not to operate in certain marketplaces where the feel that following the local laws would clash with the other principles of "Don't Be Evil," like "acting honorably and treating each other with respect," but the search giant cannot just decide to break the law.

In any marketplace, Google needs to weigh the ethical benefit of its service, which offers free information to people, against the ethical limitations of the marketplace, such as censorship. Google decided that it was more evil in China to deprive the population of any search results than to censor some results. Now it's made the same decision in India--and rightly so.

Every time Google is required to comply with local laws, it is accused of being evil; every time Google stores or analyzes a new piece of information--like mail or health records--it is accused of being invasive and violating users' privacy. These cycles are predictable and they predictably pass (do you know anyone who doesn't use Gmail because they are worried about Google reading their email?).

"Don't Be Evil" is (sadly) a lot for any international company to live up to. Google actually pulls it off quite well.


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