The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Alphabet, now Google’s overlord, ditches ‘Don’t be evil’ for ‘do the right thing’

Google’s logo at an office in Zurich in 2008. (Keystone, Walter Bieri/AP)

In 2001, Eric Schmidt was Google’s newly-minted chief executive. He was sitting in a meeting discussing a change in Google’s advertising policies — one that had the potential to bring the company quite a bit of money. A no-brainer, right?

But there was a problem, one of the engineers, pounding the table in the meeting, said. “We can’t do that, it would be evil.” A reference to “Don’t be evil” — one of the most famous lines in Google’s code of conduct, if not the history of Silicon Valley.

“The room suddenly got quiet; it was like a poker game in an old Western, when one player accuses another of cheating and everyone else backs away from the table, waiting for someone to draw,” Schmidt, with former Google vice president Jonathan Rosenberg, wrote in “How Google Works” in 2014. “Eric thought, Wow, these guys take these things seriously. A long, sometimes contentious discussion followed, and ultimately the change did not go through.”

In the salad days of the Internet, “Don’t be evil” was a mantra — a motto closely held, if casually phrased. But now that Google has been reorganized under its parent company Alphabet, “Don’t be evil” is writ less large.

Alphabet — which begins trading Monday under Google’s old symbols GOOG and GOOGL — is offering something a little different: “Do the right thing.” While Google’s code of conduct is unchanged — its employees aren’t suddenly free to do evil, and some signature initiatives such as Gmail remain with the company  — Alphabet’s moral compass seems a bit more legalistic.

“Employees of Alphabet and its subsidiaries and controlled affiliates (‘Alphabet’) should do the right thing — follow the law, act honorably, and treat each other with respect,” Alphabet’s code of conduct reads. And: “We expect all of our employees and Board members to know and follow this Code of Conduct. Failure to do so can result in disciplinary action, including termination of employment. Any waivers of this Code for directors or executive officers must be approved by our Board.”

Google — whose sometimes irreverent code also includes passages critical of cats — appeared to make light of questions about Alphabet’s change.

“Individual Alphabet companies may of course have their own codes to ensure they continue to promote compliance and great values,” a Google spokesman told the Wall Street Journal. “But if they start bringing cats to work, there’s gonna be trouble with a capital T.”

But compared with Google’s “Don’t be evil” — a corporate Sermon on the Mount written into Google’s initial public offering in 2004 — Alphabet’s version seemed a bit mealy-mouthed.

“Googlers generally apply those words to how we serve our users,” Google’s code reads. “But ‘Don’t be evil’ is much more than that. Yes, it’s about providing our users unbiased access to information, focusing on their needs and giving them the best products and services that we can. But it’s also about doing the right thing more generally – following the law, acting honorably and treating each other with respect.”

So: Why the change? Google was once David to Microsoft’s Goliath — the little company ready to take over the world.

[Google’s search for a better motto]

“Engineers who once longed to work for Microsoft came to see it as the Darth Vader of software, the dark force, the one who didn’t play fairly,” David A. Vise wrote in “The Google Story” in 2008. “By contrast, Google presented itself as a fresh new enterprise with a halo, the motto Don’t be evil, and a pair of youthful founders with reputations as nice guys. “

But now that Google has become a mere part of Alphabet — with its focus not just on search, but futuristic endeavors such as Google X labs — “Don’t be evil” has moved a bit farther into the fine print. Some thought the three-word clarion call outdated, especially since Google is often enmeshed in controversy.

“It is a decade on from the first flush of idealism that accompanied its stock market listing, and all Google’s talk of ‘don’t be evil’ and ‘making the world a better place’ has come to sound somewhat quaint,” Richard Waters of the Financial Times wrote last year. “Its power and wealth have stirred resentment and brought a backlash, in Europe in particular, where it is under investigation for how it wields its monopoly power in internet search.”

Indeed, “Don’t be evil” became a stick the media batted Google with every time the company appeared to, well, do evil. Short and sweet, it was perfect in headlines for critical stories about the company’s alleged monopolistic behavior, controversial privacy practices, and presence in China, among others.

“I think they should change their slogan to ‘evil are us,'” Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the technology consulting firm Enderle Group, said last year. “It seems like every time you turn around they are doing something that is at best questionable and at worst anti-people.” Indeed, no less a tech wizard than Apple co-founder Steve Jobs once reportedly called the slogan “bulls—t.”

But the question remained: Will a company once committed to doing no harm behave as ethically as one dedicated to doing “the right thing”?

“The change does show how the re-organization could let new businesses develop their own cultures, separate from Google,” Alistair Barr of the Wall Street Journal wrote.