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Post Leadership
Posted at 12:45 PM ET, 03/01/2012

Does the Google privacy policy ‘do no evil’?

Google’s new privacy policy goes into effect March 1. (Mark Lennihan - AP)
A new privacy policy at Google goes into effect today, and everyone from state attorneys general to the Japanese government are raising questions about it. Under the new policy, Google will be bringing all of its privacy policies for its various products under one umbrella and sharing information between them once a user has signed into a Google account. As a result, the videos you watch on YouTube will affect which ads show up in your Gmail; they could also change what turns up when you search online. The Web was abuzz yesterday with how to clear your search history on Google, as the new policy will not allow users to opt out.

It is this inflexibility around opting out that seems to have been most upsetting. Creating a profile of your online usage of Google products will bother some tremendously while mattering little to others, and may simply be the cost of using more and more sophisticated free products. But I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say that many people are upset about the changes. Google has said that if users don’t like the new policy, they can avoid signing in to their accounts, make changes to their privacy settings or stop using Google services—something we all know is unlikely to happen.

Google is an advertising company we all think of as a search engine and, like it or not, this move is the sort of thing that allows them to create better targeted ads. It very well may, as Google has said, make its privacy policy for users easier to understand, as well as benefit users by helping Google to improve its products so that users can get more from the Web. The company has been upfront about its policy with users, and says it is not collecting new information or selling it to third parties.

But Google is also a company that was founded on a motto of “don’t be evil.” That holds it to a standard that other companies haven’t set themselves up against. Changing a privacy policy may not be “evil,” so to speak, though French privacy watchdog CNIL has questioned the new policy’s “lawfulness and fairness.” (Google has said it’s confident the new policy “respects all European data protection laws and principles.”) But it does strike many consumer groups as “unfair and unwise.”

I for one have come to the point where I assume everything I put online is known about me by the lords of the Internet. But I always wonder why the leaders of companies set themselves up with these kinds of sky-high expectations. Saying you won’t be evil is a noble corporate motto when you’re a fledgling start-up, but it sets a standard that’s nearly impossible to meet in everyone’s eyes as you grow. It creates dilemmas for leaders as the company expands that other CEOs simply don’t have. While some chief executives can change their corporate mottos with little attention, Larry Page can’t exactly go out and say our mantra isn’t “don’t be evil” anymore.

Remember the JetBlue Airways debacle back in 2007, when the airline left passengers stranded on the runway for hours and took days to get its operations back in order? It surely wouldn’t have gotten so much bad press if the company hadn’t spent so long trumpeting its unparalleled customer service. BP’s work to position itself as an environmentally responsible oil company before the catastrophic spill in the Gulf of Mexico made the disaster all the worse. And Google’s “don’t be evil” motto means that any time the company makes a move some people don’t like, it gets more attention for it.

It’s great for leaders to try to make their companies good corporate citizens, and separate themselves from the pack for their honorable pursuits. But promising to try to be a good company, provide good customer service, and do good by the environment is a lot different than enshrining those covenants in your internal motto or your brand. I’m not saying companies shouldn’t strive to wear halos. But they’re all too tempting for others to knock off their heads, and can make companies look worse than if they’d never worn one at all.

This story has been updated.

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By  |  12:45 PM ET, 03/01/2012

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