Google’s ‘Don’t Be Evil’ Motto Goes to Court

Google’s ‘Don’t Be Evil’ Motto Goes to Court
Photo: Krill Kudryavtsev, Getty Images

For the better part of two decades, Google has required nearly all of its employees to sign agreements with the instructions “don’t be evil,” without ever really bothering to elaborate on what evil actually means. Now, three former software engineers are suing the company to see just how seriously it takes this supposed commitment.

The former engineers filed their lawsuit in Santa Clara County Superior Court this week claiming the search giant fired them in 2019 in response to their activism around Google’s involvement with Customs and Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs enforcement during the Trump Administration.

Prior to their firings, the engineers had organised fellow employees to speak out against the immigration policies and released a petition signed by 1495 Googlers as well as 94 other supporters calling for an end to Google’s involvement with practices they viewed as unethical. Google, they argued, was doing the evil thing.

“In working with CBP, ICE, or ORR, Google would be trading its integrity for a bit of profit, and joining a shameful lineage,” the petition read. “It is unconscionable that Google, or any other tech company, would support agencies engaged in caging and torturing vulnerable people.”

The suit claims Google’s “don’t be evil” clause of its code of conduct amounts to a contractual obligation. If that’s true, then the engineers’ activism was consistent with Google’s own rules, meaning the company may have fired them unjustly. That is to say, the employees at least had the right to raise concerns over what they viewed as an evil practice. Google didn’t respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment.

According to the suit, each of the engineers “believed that by agreeing to work with Google, their labour would not be used to produce products or services that would facilitate unethical, inhumane, or ‘evil’ conduct.” The engineer’s case zooms in squarely on this bit of language from Google’s code of conduct, which they took as a contractual obligation to speak out.

“And if you have a question or ever think that one of your fellow Googlers or the company as a whole may be falling short of our commitment, don’t be silent.”

Of course, none of this is how Google saw it. Rather, the company fired the three engineers in rapid succession, claiming they had repeatedly violated the company’s data security policies. (The lawsuit maintains the engineers only shared details that were freely available to full-time Google employees, however, details of Google offering a free trial of its cloud platform to CBP did leak to Business Insider). The three engineers’ firings are currently being investigated by the National Labour Relations Board to see if they were unlawfully discharged. The three engineers are seeking an unspecified amount of damages.

The “don’t be evil” suit is unique, and not just for tech, because it would seemingly require a judge to decide on what constitutes evil. Though the word evil is used in relation to other legal definitions like malice afterthought (“a general evil and depraved state of mind”) or gross negligence (which is “just shy of being intentionally evil’’) the word itself is inherently subjective. Could Google just maintain a position that selling services to government agencies that mercilessly rip mothers away from their children then conveniently lose track of them altogether isn’t actually evil? They could, and probably will. (Patriotism is a hell of a drug.)

The “don’t be evil” mantra has become something of an immortalised legend at Google. The phrase, first added to the company code of conduct in 2000, was reportedly a regular fixture strewn across whiteboards around the company and was apparently even the wifi password for some company shuttles. Don’t be evil became a calling card, not just for Google, but for the tech industry writ large, which in its early years had presented itself as an optimistic, idealistic force for moral change.

But maintaining this level of clear-eyed morality is hard, especially when you choose to work with military partners, profit off of misinformation, and suppress your own internal research. That’s partly why in 2018 Google tried to avoid all of this by removing the “don’t be evil” phrase from its code of conduct. Parent company Alphabet, meanwhile, adopted a slightly abridged “do the right thing” language. As of September 25, 2020, Google’s code of conduct added a slight nod to the former phrase saying, “remember…don’t be evil, and if you see something that you think isn’t right — speak up!” Google workers have been speaking up and even organising, but have so far been met with growing opposition along the way.