Google: What happened to “Don’t Be Evil”?
When Google went public in 2004, it embodied technological and entrepreneurial genius. Two engineers had developed a remarkably powerful and easy-to-use search engine, opening the doors to vast amounts of knowledge.
The founders proclaimed their motto “Don’t be mean,” which was typical of Silicon Valley’s decades-old techno-optimism. Brand Stewartwriting in rolling stone in 1972, claimed that once access to information became universal, it would make us all “computer bums, all more autonomous as individuals and as co-operators”. It would be a new era, Brand continues, of enhanced “spontaneous creation and human interaction.” The “first digital idealists”, noted computer scientist and writer Jaron Lanier in 2014, imagined a “sharing” Web operating “without the constraints of the commercial order”.
This idyll is no more. Google and the other Big Tech companies are no longer basic creators. They are now oligarchs and monopolies, wielding undue influence in the market and in politics.
The motto “Don’t be mean” was deleted in 2018 of Google’s corporate code of conduct. In the lyrics of Ross LaJeunessea former head of international relations at Google, it reflected Google’s transformation into a company consumed by the need to “go after bigger profits and an even higher stock price”.
Google has turned into a virtual monopoly that now controls 90 percent of the American, European and British search engine market. Gmail, on the other hand, has 1.5 billion monthly users, roughly 75% of the email market. web-based email. Like many of its oligarchic counterparts, Google now controls a huge revenue base. As writer and academic Michael Lind puts it, Google now operates as a “toll” corporation, acting as a digital feudal lord that charges fees to cyber travelers. Sheltered from competition, it benefits less and less from innovation, but from finding new ways to take advantage of its dominant market position.
Google’s search engine, once renowned for its impartiality and open source, has become increasingly politicized. It uses its market power to stifle competitors, as surveys in Europe, the UK and the US show. Indeed, the EU imposed a fine on Google billions of dollars in 2021 for giving preferential treatment on its search engine to its own purchasing department. One of Google’s few competitors, the much smaller DuckDuckGo, accused it earlier this year of manipulation of browser extensions to drive customers away from competing products. And this month, Britain’s state regulator, the Competition and Markets Authority, launched its own investigation into Apple and Google.
Silicon Valley feudalism
The new lords of cyberspace may not wear top hats or chain mail, but they rule with the same ferocity as their medieval ancestors or the rapacious capitalists of the golden age. Former Apple employee and Wired magazine writer Antonio Garcia Martinez described the operations of the tech oligarchs as “feudalism with better marketing.”
Back when I started reporting on Silicon Valley in the mid-1970s, many start-ups were run by people who had groundbreaking ideas about how to improve society. At Occupy Wall Street protests in 2011, anti-capitalist protesters even observed a minute of silence when they learned of the death of Steve Jobs. They hailed him as a liberator and maverick.
Indeed, in the past, founding companies like Hewlett-Packard and Intel have created a good life not only for their employees, but also for a large number of small businesses and contractors. Researchers Manuel Pastor and Chris Brenner say the 1980s were “good times for growth and equity in Silicon Valley”.
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Joël Kotkin is the author of The rise of neo-feudalism: a warning to the global middle class. He is Roger Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director of the Urban Reform Institute. Learn more about joelkotkin.com and follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.