Silicon Valley is full of lofty ideals. But few are as lofty as Google’s most famous motto: “Don’t be evil.”
If you know anything about Google’s culture, you’ve probably heard those three words. They’re catchy. Quotable. Even mockable. “Don’t be evil” was at the top of the company’s code of conduct for over a decade, seeing the company through its exponential rise from scrappy startup to tech giant.
The ideal is legendary. And its origin story is particularly telling about what Google was when it started — and the controversies surrounding the company today.
In the first episode of Land of the Giants: The Google Empire — our new seven-part podcast about Google’s ascent to a global behemoth — Marissa Mayer, one of Google’s earliest and most influential executives, and now co-founder of the startup Sunshine, told us how the company embraced “don’t be evil.”
Mayer says the idea of “Don’t be evil” came about when Google began making deals to monetize its search engine in the late ’90s. An early business meeting with the Washington Post raised excitement among Google’s engineers but also some trepidation. In particular, Mayer told us, one engineer named Amit Patel had serious doubts.
“He was worried that [we] might tell the Washington Post that we’ll put an article that they think is more important first in the search results or not be as comprehensive if they didn’t want us to be. Things that he really viewed would compromise our integrity.” (Remember, at the time, Google’s whole goal for itself was to “organize the world’s information.”) A representative for Google could not confirm details of the meeting, but said that the company would never change search results because of a partner.
And so, says Mayer, Patel went into the conference room where the Google team was going to meet with the Washington Post and wrote a message to his co-workers on the whiteboard “in the lower left-hand corner … in tiny little letters, ‘don’t be evil.’”
The line clearly resonated, because later, Mayer and some other longtime employees were tasked with coming up with an official code of conduct for the company. Mayer recalls that Paul Buchheit (a legendary Google engineer who would later come up with Gmail) brought back Patel’s note. “[Paul] said, can we just dispense with this exercise? We have our core value. It’s what Amit wrote on the whiteboard; it’s ‘don’t be evil.’”
Buccheit told us he remembers the series of events slightly differently. He said he remembers first coming up with the “don’t be evil” saying during a meeting about core company values, and that afterwards Patel started writing “don’t be evil” around Google’s headquarters. But Buccheit also said he shared an office with Mayer and Patel at the time, so it’s possible Patel first “implanted” the mantra in Buccheit’s mind, in an “inception type scenario.” This all happened over 20 years ago, so it makes sense the grand “don’t be evil” origin story has a couple different variations, depending who you talk to. What matters though, is that the idea stuck.
“Don’t be evil” quickly became part of Google’s identity, internally and to the outside world. It represented a new kind of ethos for a future corporate powerhouse, one that would help shape the culture of Silicon Valley and the many tech companies that formed in the past 20 years. Google was meant to be innovating technology to make the world a better place.
In Google’s early days, applying the mantra of don’t be evil was simple: Don’t let advertisers buy their way to the top of search results, don’t charge people to find information, don’t spam people with banner ads on the homepage.
Today, Google’s ability to fulfill that promise of not being evil is a lot more complicated.
As Google has grown from a small operation with a single tool — search — into a global behemoth with hundreds of products, from Gmail to Google Maps to YouTube, that all have immense influence over how we communicate and discover information, people have started questioning whether Google is too big. They’re also scrutinizing whether the decisions it makes are harming the rest of us as it fulfills the corporate demand to make more profits.
In the fall of 2020, the US Department of Justice and several state attorneys general filed three separate antitrust lawsuits against Google. The suits charge that Google holds monopoly power in online search and digital ad technology, and it is using that power to stifle competition.
At the same time, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are also mad at Google — and other major tech companies — for different reasons. Some politicians think the company isn’t doing enough in taking down misinformation about things like Covid-19 or the 2020 election on its platforms. Other politicians allege the company is already doing too much and stifling partisan speech, like when Google’s YouTube recently suspended Donald Trump’s account for inciting violence in the wake of the capitol riots. It’s a reminder that “don’t be evil” can mean different things to different people.
Even within Google’s own workforce, we see tension around what the company stands for. In November 2018, 20,000 Google employees staged a walkout to protest the company’s handling of several high-profile sexual harassment claims, which revealed a host of internal conflicts, from objections about expanding Google’s business to accusations of a retaliatory culture against employees who speak out or try to unionize.
It can seem hard to reconcile all this outrage about Google with the idea that Google was supposed to be the happiest of the tech giants. The one with the bright colorful logo, the clever doodles, the culture of innovation and excellence. And the do-good mantra.
“Google doesn’t always do the right thing,” Dana Wagner, who served as Google’s antitrust lawyer from 2007 to 2011, told us. That’s because, Wagner said, “Sometimes it’s not clear what the right thing is.”
In 2018, Google quietly moved “don’t be evil” to the very end of its code of conduct. But it’s still there: “And remember … don’t be evil, and if you see something that you think isn’t right — speak up.” To the Google employees, politicians, and users who still hold Google to that standard — whatever their interpretation of it may be — those three words still matter.
For more stories about Google’s incredible rise, covering everything from the mobile phone wars to the company’s internal tensions to its current antitrust battles, subscribe now to Land of the Giants: The Google Empire. And please tell us what you think: We’re on Twitter at @shiringhaffary and @kantrowitz.