January 28, 2006

Evvill and Corporate Accountabilty: The Google Case

Category: Ethics,Hackers,Politics — @ 9:25 pm

My friend over at Spam has been tracking and commenting on the “are google two-timing jerks, now doing ‘some evil’ debacle concerning China and censorship. I have a keen interest in the topic, less because of the human rights issues (which I find fascinating) but because this is the most visible test case that challenges, one may say painfully grinds against, Google’s “Do No Evil” Policy and reveals the depth and stakes of their little social experiment.

I was far from surprised that Google, when it went public, attempted to infuse the hacker ethical spirit into the corporation, which was built, garage on up, on the spirit and literally foundation of open source software. The fact that they were throwing around such talk, reminded me that one of the questions about hacker ethical discourse I have my students probe is: why are hackers and geek-types so quick to pronounce hacker ethical talk (and in such a clear and well-formulated way)?

There is no one answer to this (and I wrote a dissertation that addresses this question and perhaps only gets at small percentage of the answer because the answer is lies in multiple threads of analysis) but, I think, there is something about where they work, i.e., the corporation, that lends itself toward a heightened discussion of ethics. Hackers are bodies who labor, day in, and day out, in a context that is often, at some level (though not total) a threat to the hacker ethical imperative for technical sovereignty. These threats come in various forms, but the two most persistent and locally visible are the figure of the manager (conduits, though, for much larger corporate decisions) and the various bundles of rights (or restrictions, depending on your perspective) collected under the banner of intellectual property law. Within the a context of low -grade constant threat, hacker ethical discourse is pronounced, and omni-present, a sort of weak form of innoculation, that serves to remind them what is “right” and it is the not necessarily the road less traveled, but the road that leads to the best technical solution. And this ethical presence is marked in everything from modes of comportment, styles of dress, and of course joking.. (usually derisive jokes about managers, common in Dilbert).

But as Thorstein Veblen wrote so long ago, the corporate imperative for maximal profits can conflict with churning out the “best quality” technology or product and in fact can managers to “sabotage” the corporation’s material capacities, if this will in some fashion, render the corporation, ruled by absentee owners, more profitable. Veblen writes:

“But it is equally evident that the owner or manager of any given concern or section of this industrial system may be in a position to gain something for himself at the cost of the rest by obstructing, retarding or dislocating this working system at some critical point in such a way as will enable him to get the best of the bargain in his dealings with the rest (vested interest, p. 93). In the Vested Interests, and other books, Veblem champions an engineering ethic that holds many affinities with the hacker” (Oh how he would have simply loved free and open source production).

Decades letter Tracey Kidder, in his masterful account Soul of a New Machine tells the story of a team of computer engineers at Data General Corporation driven to make the best evah’ computer, but alas, there are problems littered due to management. He captures the tension between the mandates of sound engineering and the mandates of sound business practice. The book ends with a somewhat dramatic commentary on the tension:

“The day after the formal announcement, Data General’s famous sales force had been intrudiced to the computer in New York and elsewhere. At the end of the presentation for the samles personell in New York, the regional sales manager got up and give his troops a pep talk.
“What motivates people?” he asked.
He answered his own question, saying, “Ego and the money to buy things that they and
their families want.”
It was a different game now. Clearly, the machine no longer belonged to its makers.”

Thanks to things like open source, the Internet, and most importantly, legal insturments, the machine, in the form of code, does or can belong to its makers…

That aside, what is so interesting about Google’s “Do No Evil” Mantra, is that it is a reflexive regognition that things can go amiss in a corporation, that there is a tension, especially in a public company, between management and the technical comrades, between the stockholders and the employees. And with some understanding of tension, they crafted an ethical shield written that is well-known and even incorporated into their corporate charter.

But whether such a shield is made from paper puff pastries or something more hefty, like steel is now under test. But I really don’t think this is a question about Google’s fortitude. It may be that the structure, the force-field of a publicly trade company, leaves little wiggle room (or perhaps only wiggle room) to apply, abide, much less expand on ethical committments.

That said, I think that this case is more intersting than a situation of “can Google live up to its word.” Instead I laud Google for even trying to infuse an ethical sentiment into the corporate way of life. It is an interesting experiment that is worth bearing out, that if nothing else, will help clarify once again, the limits and possiblities for corporate accountability.


  1. Well said!

    And I don’t think Google ever claimed more than wiggle room, although some
    people got over-optimistic and really thought Google meant something broader.
    But especially in this case, what were they supposed to do? China controls
    every wire leading in and out of the country. “Do No Evil” means “do what you
    can”, not “remain pure at all costs, even that of survival”. Every foreign
    company doing business in China makes compromises, yet little by little
    China becomes more porous, less centrally-controlled. Staying out is not
    the answer.

    Comment by Karl Fogel — January 29, 2006 @ 7:16 pm

  2. True. Being good does not mean all out purity. We need to get dirty sometimes. Though then the question is, when do we become dirty and with what? Some mud is cleaner than others. :-)

    I do look forward to the unfolding of this drama for it, I am sure, will be with us for years to come.


    Comment by sato — January 29, 2006 @ 7:22 pm

  3. Another comment… this time on the real topic of your post :-) .

    Every so often I cynically mention to my friend Fitz that Google is now
    publicly traded, and therefore must wander always within epsilon
    of the usual level of amorality for publicly traded corporations. Fitz
    responds by pointing out that Google is a special case: it may be publicly
    traded, but the founders have (apparently — I don’t have the details here)
    done something very unusual with the stock, such that most of it is
    non-voting. Either they or they and a small handful of people control the
    company, so it’s possible that Google’s actions may actually reflect the
    values of some particular human or group of humans.

    Again, I don’t know the details of the arrangement. But I think it’d be important
    to have those details before we come to any conclusions about “the limits and
    possiblities for corporate accountability” in general.

    Comment by Karl Fogel — January 29, 2006 @ 8:14 pm

  4. It is true they did something and it is worth digging the details about it. I know what aim was to not have to abide by the quarterly rhythms that most companies have to dance to. If you don’t perform EVERY quarter, then measures are taken. They did not want to proceed under that frame.

    Lets find what they did. Pester the Fitz :-)

    Comment by sato — January 30, 2006 @ 3:12 pm

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