I’ve been thinking a little about Google’s recent Buzz debacle, and the flurry of responses to it. On the surface, one could be forgiven for believing that Google might be somewhat unhappy about the way that their latest and greatest service came into the universe. There’s certainly been all kinds of criticism, including a stern finger wagging from Canada’s Privacy Commissioner.
But when you think about it, has Google really taken a hit? The people I’ve talked to (the ones with Gmail addresses of course) were initially annoyed that a list of their most frequent contacts could have been exposed to the world. But most eventually realized that they hadn’t really been negatively affected by the situation and rather quickly moved on. I definitely have not met a single person who felt so strongly about the breach that they were prepared to stop using their Gmail address.
On the contrary, I have spoken to more than a few people who hadn’t even noticed the Buzz button until after the privacy stories broke – and once they checked it out, they were enthusiastic about using it! Would they have adopted the new service so quickly if they hadn’t heard about it on the news?
Now, I’m not saying that Google intentionally allowed the privacy issues to slip through just for the publicity. There’s simply no evidence to support such an accusation.
But, I wonder if Google hasn’t become so big that it is no longer concerned about bad publicity generally. Is the giant so comfortable that it no longer foresees any possibility of risk associated with the introduction of new products? I think it’s possible. For one thing, how come Buzz completely skipped the Google Labs? Nobody would have complained at all if the privacy issues had been identified in the lab, and Buzz really is just an extension to Gmail that could have been vetted in the labs just like countless others. But this situation seems to fit suspiciously well within the famous Google slogan:
“Don’t be evil.”
It’s an interesting slogan. Initially, it invites people to feel good about supporting the company. At the same time, it indirectly suggests that Google’s competitors are, well, evil. Clearly the idea of this slogan is to leave people with the impression that Google wants to be a good corporate citizen.
But take another look.
The slogan doesn’t say anything about Google being good, or nice, or even polite. We tend to presume that if something is not evil, it must be good – but that isn’t really the only option. What this slogan actually says is not that Google strives to be benevolent, but that Google strives to be benign.
Well, a tumor can be benign too, but that doesn’t mean I want one.
So why isn’t Google’s slogan ‘Be good’? Why have they opted for a negative negative, instead of a straight positive? I think it is because the company doesn’t want the limitations that striving to be good would create.
Google can pretty easily defend the current slogan by simply claiming that the Buzz issues were an accident. Google wasn’t being evil, it just made a mistake. But the reverse slogan could not be justified so easily – mistakes are never good, even if they are unavoidable.
To be fair, Google has done a lot of good for the development of the internet, if not the world at large. I’m certainly happy with the immediate and relevant results that appear when I use the search, and Google Maps with Streets View has completely changed the way that I travel.
But at the same time, (hypocritically for sure) I worry that continuing to feed the giant is a dangerous path to follow.
Today the giant doesn’t want to be evil, but what about tomorrow?