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Maybe it’s time for Google to rethink its ‘Don’t be evil’ motto

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“Don’t be evil.” That’s Google’s unofficial motto, in case you didn’t know. In 2004, when the company went public, its founders even based the company code of conduct on the phrase, which has since become known as the “Don’t Be Evil’” manifesto.

For a long time, it was easy to believe that Google was walking the walk. The company regularly spoke out in defense of openness and against censorship on the Internet, choosing its values over potential profit by leaving China and becoming a force in Washington by acting to oppose the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act.

But was all that just an act?

FAQ: Google’s new privacy policy and what kind of data it’s collecting and integrating about you

The first signs that Google was brewing plans that were not-exactly-not-evil might have actually come in 2009, when it signed a partnership agreement with Verizon Wireless. Google had previously battled the monolithic carrier, which it claimed was working to undermine user choice by attempting to enforce restrictive rules on the radio frequencies that now power 4G devices.

But when Google capitulated on disagreements over the bandwidth and dived head-first into a big partnership with Verizon to launch the Droid mobile phone, something started to feel off. It seemed like Google was favoring money and market share over what was best for users.

In some ways, this wasn’t the company’s fault. As our devices and experiences have become more about ecosystems than single points of entry, a kind of regrouping has been happening. Google has come to this party later than others, but just as Facebook would like you to remain within its pages and never leave, and Apple would like you to exclusively use its network of applications, music and videos, so too does Google.

But the flip-flop on Verizon without a good explanation seemed just a little bit evil.

A few years ago, Google’s position as search leader was practically unassailable. To find what you were looking for on the Web, there was really only one portal. Google built its business on the number of potential consumers it could introduce to advertisers and the search-targeted advertising it had honed. The company didn’t need to own or control content; it owned and controlled how you got to the content.

It’s clear that Google has had to evolve as its position has slipped. It has had to become more than agile — it has had to become wildly aggressive. Slowly but surely, we’ve watched Google try to find a way into spaces where its search is increasingly less relevant.

That’s where Google+ comes in. Google+, unveiled in June, is the company’s first real answer to Twitter and Facebook.

A few weeks ago, Google made one of the biggest changes to its search product. If you happened to be signed in to your Gmail account, Google search began including — no, not just including, but promoting — Google+ links inside of your search results. Sure, you can turn off this personalized search feature, but many users might not know how. So if you had searched for Ryan Gosling, it might have also displayed information about other people named Ryan that you’re friends with or showed you images that your friends have shared at the top of image results.

In short, it started seriously messing with “true” search, the search that had been largely untainted; the search based on algorithms, not allegiances; the search we expect from Google.

I think most users would argue that this makes finding what you want harder, less diverse and more insulated. The experience feels suffocating to me, like I have to fight through Google+ results to see the “real” stuff.

Google search has, until now, represented the Internet giant’s biggest gift and most valuable contribution to the Web — a place to find things untouched (or at least mostly untouched) by greedy hands.

This week, Google announced another radical change to Google search — but this time on the back end. It said that beginning March 1, Google would begin integrating information about searches you run while signed into a Google account, including your Android phone, with data from 59 other Google products such as Gmail and YouTube. Google says there’s a way to turn off your search history — but you have to do it in at least three places. The only absolute way to prevent giving Google enough information to build a digital dossier of your life is to close your account.

I don’t think anyone in our industry would knock Google for continuing to build its business and make money. And yes, we could all benefit from acknowledging that our concepts of “good” and “evil” aren’t always clear. But explaining away Google’s changes as simply a matter of differing perspectives wouldn’t address the real problem.

The real problem is that Google’s search policy shift and the change in its privacy policies suggest a shift in core values at the company — values you didn’t need a road map to figure out a few years ago. Those were values that placed the user first and stood in stark contrast to monopolistic practices of companies like Microsoft in the 1990s.

They were Google Values, and they felt right. They felt good.

If Google can’t see how perverse some of its decisions look today by comparison, maybe it’s time to rethink the company motto.

Joshua Topolsky is the founding editor in chief of the Verge, a technology news Web site.

Related: Google tracks consumers across products; you can’t opt out Backlash against Google’s new privacy policy Report: iPhone 5 coming this summer

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