"Really -- what kind of motto is 'Don't Be Evil'?" someone asked me recently. "Is Boeing's motto 'Don't kill people'? What does it say about a company that feels the need to remind its employees not to be evil?"
In 2001, when "Don't Be Evil" first appeared, Google was the anti-Big Brother -- a label that wore negative connotations synonymous with the biggest, most "corporate" companies. Back then, the slogan was cute: Don't be evil, big guys! We're a search-obsessed bunch of guys with big hearts. We'll show you how it's done.
But now Google is a big company -- and what's more, it's got more claim to the Big Brother moniker than any other firm. In December, 66% of searches took place on Google. That's a lot of accumulated information (John Battelle goes so far as to call it our "database of intentions").
Today, we as Google users have to deal with divorcing "Big Brother" from its unpleasant undertones. We have come to trust Google more than any other company because it has somehow promised it wouldn't betray that trust. And so we hold Google to standards that competitors like Yahoo and Microsoft aren't expected to meet.
So while Yahoo and Microsoft do increasingly icky things in China, for example, it's Google we all watch. Y! and Microsoft are down to reveal Chinese bloggers' identities to the Gov? Well, what do you expect?!
But Google. Just to operate in China, Google made an agreement with the government to filter content deemed sensitive. And the Stateside outcry was so significant that Google had to write this super-wordy, touchy-feely explanation about the why's and the trade-offs.
Battelle's The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture has more on the expectations that surround a company whose ethos is inextricably moral.
Personally, I think it's a good thing. The Google employees I've met are obsessed with the core objective of "benefiting the consumer," and I think that has a lot to do with "Don't Be Evil." I'll worry when some Google icon in the not-too-distant future decides to trash the motto.
And hey. Maybe Boeing's motto should be "Don't kill people." (Insert eye-roll here.)