Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Paul Buchheit:"Don't Be Evil"
14 points by gibsonf1 on May 16, 2007 | hide | past | favorite | 25 comments

Hi Paul. Since you are the person at Google who came up with the "Don't Be Evil" motto, could you please explain what that means? I am genuinely curious and have no intention of badgering you about this. Thank you.

That's a good question. There's no simple (non-circular) answer, but I can try to give a few heuristics.

First, it's important to remember that any significant action is likely to have some negative consequences. One test is to ask, "Ignoring personal loss/gain, would the world be better if I stopped doing X?" For example, if a spammer stopped spamming, I think we'd all be better off, therefore spamming is probably evil. On the other hand, news.yc is a nice service that benefits a lot of people, so it's probably non-evil.

At the specific time that I made up the "Don't be evil" phrase, there were a number of topics in mind, including the spyware/scumware problem, and paid-inclusion, which was popular at the time among our competitors (you could pay to sneak your site in their regular search results). These are both examples of tricking your users for your own benefit, which is generally evil. Paid inclusion is hidden advertising -- none of their users knew which results were paid for. It would be similar to a reporter who takes bribes to write favorably about something. Spyware is evil not because it is spying on you, but because it is doing so without your consent and probably against your will. If users had actually knowingly given informed consent (not hidden in some EULA somewhere, or anything like that), then the "spyware" wouldn't be evil -- it's like the difference between justin.tv filming his own life, and someone else secretly doing so.

Thanks for the clarification. So the "evil" refers to the very narrow context of the specific functionality of the google product, rather than to a wider context which is usually understood by the idea?

With your broader point: "Ignoring personal loss/gain, would the world be better if I stopped doing X?", what standard would you use for judging what is better for the world?

To frame the rule in the positive action sense, if you were judging whether to take some action, you would think about the world minus yourself, and then see if the world is "better" after the action. How would you judge what "better" means here? Would it mean adding "value" to others? If so, how would you bridge the gap between those who value mystical pursuits divorced from real world evidence and modern media versus those who might want to increase their knowledge about the world through focused learning and induction? (Say between Pennsylvania Amish and tech startup founders) Some people value manipulating others, some controlling others, some killing others - the range between individual values is very large. In short, it seems impossible to approach "better" by looking at what each person in the world values as everyone values different things in spite of some similar things that people do value in common which is what we here are trying to provide, and of course it is impossible to know what everyone values anyway.

So without your personal value as a standard and other individual values as a standard for better, what do you use?

I don't think his stated definition has a narrow context at all. It seems to apply to anything. As a corporate motto, of course it only applies to Google...but as a statement of ethics it looks pretty general.

Popup ads, spam, integrating paid results with search results, and spyware/adware were the big problems during the dot com crash, when ethics went out the window, and the main community for nerds (slashdot) really liked to call companies evil for their behavior way before digg or redit existed. Once Google made that a slogan, Google was mentioned all the time in such threads for the slogan, and not just because they are a search engine.

Google's name still comes up when any evil corporate behavior is discussed in any nerd community (not so much non-nerd groups) because of that great catch phrase, especially when Microsoft is mentioned. I've always believed, as it sounds from your post, that the phrase has no philosophical or religious meaning beyond "enough is enough". If they teach otherwise in business school, they're making things up.

"If they teach otherwise in business school, they're making things up."

This is an understandable belief given all the publicity the bad companies get. But what about the companies that do well and actually act in a moral way? There must be many of those as well, but not nearly as exciting to report on. Here's a rising bank that makes a very large point of their moral approach to running their business: http://www.bbt.com/bbt/about/philosophy/values.html

Maybe with the increasing leveling of the business "playing field" and the increasing openness of communication, businesses that actually act in ethical ways will gain ever larger advantages in winning and keeping customers over their less ethical competitors. A business that gains a reputation for integrity in its field that focuses on providing customer value will be hard to topple.

There are two fundamental problems here.

One is that the customer can't easily discern between a good company and an evil company without doing business with them. Once they hit a certain size and have a large enough customer base, reputation helps.

But companies that act in their own short-term interests without regard to integrity are likely to out-compete companies that try to behave ethically -- so all other things being equal, if a large company doesn't make a fuss about ethics and integrity, odds are it's evil.

The ethical company has the long-term advantage, but the unethical company has the short-term advantage. If the unethical company can use the short-term advantage to its benefit, it can build up enough of a business that it's hard to topple despite being unethical.

The second point is that the larger the company, the more its inherent trend towards self-serving (probably evil) behavior. Bureaucracies are inhuman, because the responsibility for the evil act or evil policy can always be passed on elsewhere or euphemized away, and a large number of problems turns into a statistic. One person screwed over by the company is a real problem; ten thousand screwed over by the company justifies the budget for the complaints department.

It takes a very principled, very public stand to avoid both of these problems.

"Google's name still comes up when any evil corporate behavior is discussed in any nerd community (not so much non-nerd groups) because of that great catch phrase, especially when Microsoft is mentioned."

I think it was Cringely who said something like: "Microsoft's slogan is similar to Google's, but slightly different. Be evil."

Perhaps you could clarify something that's puzzled me. I thought when I first heard about it, the phrase was "Do no evil". Then "Don't be evil" became more prevalent. Was there ever a switch, or was it just mis-reported initially?

I'm not sure if this is right or not, but in philosophy class, I was taught that Google's motto was a manifestation of negative consequentialism: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consequentialism#Negative_consequentialism

Basically, the ethical decision is that which avoids a negative outcome. The professor mentioned a number of interesting implications of strict negative consequentialism. The following actions would be morally wrong:

- For someone to stave off starvation by stealing a loaf of bread from Bill Gates.

- Any type of self defense that involves harming others. Ie: using pepper spray to prevent rape.

- Sacrificing one person's life to save the lives of a million others. Ie: killing Hitler before he started WWII.

The 3 points you describe sound more to me like deontology than negative consequentialism. According to the entry you linked to, deontology judges actions based on the actions themselves, while consequentialism judges actions based on their consequences. Negative consequentialism, then, involves avoiding actions which produce consequences that are overall negative. In each case you described, the actions are typically considered deontologically wrong, but the overall consequences of those actions are not negative, so they don't seem to me to be wrong by negative consequentialist standards.

Getting back to the topic of the submission, I always presumed that the comment basically meant, "Don't be like Microsoft." Many people call Microsoft the "Evil Empire", so this falls in nicely with that theme. By aligning themselves opposite Microsoft, Google is able to attract that population of hackers which does not appreciate Microsoft's business tactics (things like the FUD campaign that is going on right now in regards to patents). Whether Google is actually committed to moral business practices or not is debatable, but the motto is a nice way to appear "hacker-friendly".

You're right - my examples (and google's motto) sound more deontological, or similar to the golden rule. Maybe someone who knows more about this can clarify.

I'm pretty sure it was just about not being Microsoft (and their anti-trust problems), using popup ads, or spamming, the things that were major problems that were ticking people off 7 or so years ago when that motto came about. I don't think it's very much beyond that.

Don't be evil was a competitive advantage.

'... I was taught that Google's motto was a manifestation of negative consequentialism ...'

Sam thats too much thinking for me (grin).

Are we missing the point of the quote? The best example I've found why pb added 'dont be evil' to the list, was a jab at "their competitors". Pb suspected ( unsubstantiated ) them of "selling search results and mixing them in with real ones" (Founders at Work, Paul Buchheit, p170). Commercial gain through deception.

It was after all meant to be a (serious) joke. Especially Amit Patel, who pb quotes as writing 'dont be evil' on whiteboards, 'all over the building'.

I'm pretty sure it was just about not being Microsoft (and their anti-trust problems), using popup ads, or spamming, the things that were major problems in 2001.

What about tracking everything about people's lives, and pushing spyware onto their computers (Google Toolbar)? Would that qualify?

I wouldn't really call Google Toolbar "spyware" or say that it's pushed onto a computer. If you don't like it, don't use it. I don't. Nobody has yet made me.

I think they do try to push it, for example didn't they strike a deal with Dell so that it comes preinstalled on every Dell Computer? Don't know what else they try to bundle it with - Yahoo does the same thing, though.

I think just about everything comes preinstalled on every Dell Computer. Dell probably thinks they're doing their users a favor by loading a brand new computer up with every piece of software available. I disagree, but that's why I don't buy from Dell - I've got a nice Acer laptop that came with absolutely nothing except the OS and some hardware-specific stuff (DVD-burner software, touchpad enhancements).

I've been lucky so far with Dell: my lapatop came without leechware, and other computers at least came with a CD so I could reinstall a pure OS myself.

Anyway, what I don't like about Google is that they are not very open about their data collection policies. Every product they publish seems on the one hand to be very useful, on the other hand it always seems perfect for collecting even more data.

Google Earth - everyone bookmarks their own home first, right? So Google now knows where you live (they probably knew that before anyway, but still)

Google Mail - uh, oh...

Toolbar - track EVERY webpage you vist, and who knows what Google knows about your local hard drive? After all, if you search something local, and nothing is found, search automatically continues on Google, I think? So Google at the very least knows what you think is on your local harddrive...

And so. It just annoys me that they pretend to be so innocent - I don't really blame them for collecting the data, it's their business, but they shouldn't pretend to not be evil. It just rings dishonest to me.

"Dell probably thinks they're doing their users a favor by loading a brand new computer up with every piece of software available."

No, Dell thinks, "Hey, free money!" Companies pay a lot to have their software pre-installed.

What about the whole NLP thing that NEGATIVE injunctions are ignored by the unconscious/subconscious brain.

In other words, this directive really serves to state "Be Evil" at the deepest level of our core consciousness?

ie because of this phrase, Google has become associated with (the word) "Evil" in a way few others throughout history have (ie with the possible exception of Hitler et al)

thats hilarious

edit: and probably not correct. The phrase has been thought about so much and repeated so often that I would think the negative would no longer be ignored, although on the first read it may have an affect of a Be Evil command. I never did get around to reading nlp books.

Is there a way to measure (via Google or some other publicly accesible technology) how close two terms are related, in the public discourse and on the Internet? (I'm sure there's some stupid easy way to do this, but I forget what the best way is.)

Guidelines | FAQ | Lists | API | Security | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact