They Won’t Do Evil, It Is Their Culture
Google has been revered as one of the best technology companies to work for. They’re often the first choice of alumni of post-graduate programs in the sciences. The combination of being able to offer opportunities in cutting-edge science combined with a strong ethical corporate culture has made them a preferred destination for the best and brightest. This has fed their ability to grow the business in multiple business areas simultaneously. Lately however that shiny reputation has begun to tarnish.
The most recent event was the abrupt cancellation of their Artificial Intelligence Ethics Board just one week after being formed. The problem centered around the inclusion of Heritage Foundation president Kay Coles James as a member. The fact that he openly espoused anti-LGBTQ opinions as well as his organisations opposition to climate change made him persona non grata as far as most googlers were concerned. It did not take them long to make their views known to senior management.
This is not the first time that questionable ethical decisions have been made by CEO Sundar Pichai that subsequently had to be rowed back after they triggered a rebellion among the staff. In his short tenure we have seen him rub up against the “Don’t Be Evil” standard that has been part of Google’s ethical culture since 2001. He was widely criticized in 2018 for knuckling-under to censorship when it was revealed that Google was working on a search engine that would comply with Chinese Government rules as well as demands by employees also in 2018 that Google pull out of a Pentagon funded AI research project. He also had to deal with the largest employee walkout in tech history when 20,000 employees protested how the company deals with sexual harassment complaints.
Like most of the historical complaints the most recent one seems to have its roots in a decision that was made for business reasons but that ignored the corporate culture. The reason that Kay Coles James was appointed to the AI Ethics Board was most likely to curry favour with the Republicans and head off any attempts to regulate AI research. These are standard business reasons and in almost any other company this would probably not have attracted so much attention. Google however is not your standard company.
It has perhaps more of your personal data than just about any other company on the planet. The reason we allow them the latitude to invade our privacy to such a high degree is our trust that they will not misuse that data. While companies like Facebook have run afoul of users for misusing their personal data and allowing advertisers to behave in unethical ways with that data, Google has largely escaped that backlash. This has to do with the fact that Google has such a strong ethical culture that people trust them to always do the right thing. Even when a CEO runs roughshod in pursuit of business objectives, people trust that the employees will reel them back in and get them back on the ethical path.