Google's 'Animal Farm' Moment

In George Orwell's book Animal Farm, there is a passage where the pigs adjust their credo of "All animals are created equal" to "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."

Maybe that was what Google executives had in mind this month when the company abandoned its long-held credo; "Don't be evil" in favor of "Do the right thing."

"Don't be evil" was famously created at Google's founding by an engineer who wanted something so bold that it would be impossible for the company to back away from it. But it has haunted Google ever since.

From helping overseas pharmacies illicitly market drugs into the United States (for which it paid $500 million and averted prosecution) to being accused of rigging search results that damage competitors to promoting drugs, fake passports, content theft, stolen credit cards and underage prostitution, Google has a checkered history when it comes to "Don't be evil."

And as of this writing, European regulators are investigating whether to pursue anti-trust charges against Google and the U.S. Federal Trade Commission is apparently looking into whether Google is leveraging its operating system to give it unfair advantage over its competitors.

When pressed that Google was violating users' privacy, Google CEO Eric Schmidt's retort in 2010 was: "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place."

So perhaps abandoning it was an acknowledgement that not being evil is too high a bar for Google to try to meet. But it does beg questions what "Do the right thing" means.

At some point, I think that Google believed in the credo "Don't be evil." It did its best to try to make the Internet safer, for example helping found stopbadware.org, a group dedicated to trying to identify and warn users about the dangers of malware from rogue websites.

But somewhere along the way "Don't be evil" seemed to get in the way of Google's other unspoken credo: "Sell more advertising." And that seemed to redefine what "evil" is. For example, was it evil for Google to help overseas drug dealers market into the United States?

Was it evil to essentially partner with drug dealers marketing painkillers such as oxycontin or steroids on its subsidiary YouTube? Google not only allowed those videos, but also stood to benefit by running ads alongside them. When Google placed ads for companies such as Target next to search results for underage prostitutes, was that crossing the line Google drew when it first promised to not be evil?

In the end only Google can answer those questions because it's proven to be too powerful to be held accountable. The FTC backed down even though it's own staff said there was evidence of wrongdoing. And when Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood sought to investigate Google, the search company got a federal judge to shut it down.

That is a case I'm familiar with because the Digital Citizens Alliance, a nonprofit that I oversee made up of members of the creative industries and others, discussed our findings on how the search giant helped facilitate content theft with General Hood. Google's response? Force DCA to spend funds on legal proceedings instead of Internet safety research.

So that gets us back to what Google's new motto means. Does "Do the right thing" mean do the right thing for Google? That means selling as many ads as possible, shutting down critics, and being dominant.

Hopefully it means something else: that the company will understand that its power over the world is immense, and yes it can be used for good or evil, and that at all times it should do the right thing by users.

In the end, it seems like only Google will decide that. With power that great, and regulators cowed, it seems Google is "Too Big to Jail."