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Google’s search for a better motto

Larry Page, co-founder and chief executive officer at Google Inc. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg)
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Google is on the hunt for a new mission statement. The search giant's ambitions have grown so large and diverse that its original goals are no longer accurately captured by the phrase "organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful," according to an interview in the Financial Times:

Asked whether this means Google needs a new mission statement, he says: “I think we do, probably.” As to what it should be: “We’re still trying to work that out.”

The Guardian takes this to mean that Page is explicitly considering abandoning "Don't Be Evil." That seems to overstate things a little — Page appears to have been talking generally about Google's expanded vision rather than addressing the "Don't Be Evil" motto specifically. (The Guardian has since updated its story to focus on the broader cultural shift underway at Google.) Still, it's clear the company is thinking about how to reposition itself as more of its side projects — Google Fiber, self-driving cars, bringing Internet to developing countries — bring it into conflict with established companies, regulations and institutions. To get its way in these fights, Google will probably have to be a little evil to incumbents at least some of the time.

The big question is whether ordinary consumers might get hurt in the process. Privacy critics are interpreting Google's move as a signal that it's going to become an even bigger player in the data business.

"The company’s revenue comes from its pervasive eavesdropping on our behaviors and actions — when we search, use mobile phones and watch YouTube," said Jeffrey Chester, who leads the Center for Digital Democracy. "By changing their motto, they are finally acknowledging in part what they really stand for: They monitor and monetize the lives of people across the globe."

Despite Google's growing ability to track what you do online, it's also undeniably filled gaping holes in demand for Internet services — often before we even realized that we wanted them. Now, it's taking that same approach to the world's biggest social and economic challenges at a time when, at least in the company's eyes, governments are no longer equipped to deal with them.

"Somebody’s got to do it,” said Page.

Correction: An earlier version of this article said that Google was backing away from its "Don't Be Evil" slogan. A Google spokesperson clarifies that Google talked to the Financial Times about its mission generally, not its specific policy on "Don't Be Evil."