As a former Google employee, I always took the â€œDonâ€™t Be Evilâ€ mantra as a sincere gesture to be taken with a grain of salt. Â The slogan was a reminder of the companyâ€™s humble and idealistic beginnings, but not an iron-clad indication of its post-IPO mindset. Â After all, a corporation open to accommodating censorship in China is willing to put practical limits on principles that hit the bottom line too hard.
Many long-time Google advocates were surprised and disappointed with last weekâ€™s Google/Verizon net neutrality proposal, and I was among them. Â While the company defends the move as a necessary practical decision given political realities, it in many ways marks the completion of Googleâ€™s gradual transition from wunderkind start-up to new-millennium corporate superpower. Â Google first laid the groundwork for policy collaboration with Verizon in a joint October 2009 blog posting titled â€œFinding Common Ground On An Open Internet.â€ At that point Google was quick to highlight philosophical differences, stating that â€œwhile Google supports light touch regulation, it believes that safeguards are needed to combat the incentives for carriers to pick winners and losers online.â€
However, with a recent court ruling that the FCC over-reached in protecting net neutrality, Google has determined that compromise is the only solution and that neutrality on wireless connections is a sacrifice worth making.
The Google/Verizon proposal endorses safeguarding neutrality on landlines while wireless would remain largely unregulated and open to tiered pricing practices by internet service providers. Â In this scenario, ISPs like Verizon are free to charge content providers varying rates for delivery speeds. This approach could be hobbling for new start-ups that canâ€™t afford the premium service afforded by established companies. Â Googleâ€™s own success is due in part to flourishing in an open internet where start-ups operated on an even playing field with bigger corporations.
From a purely business stand point, Google is arguably making a smart move. Â With an ally like Verizon and an array of wireless Android phones and tablets rumoured to flood the market in the coming years, Google is positioned to benefit from non-neutrality in a way it was not a few years ago. Â Itâ€™s also safe to say that only a small base of tech-minded Google users are likely to cry treason and take their business to Bing. Â Last weekâ€™s rally at Google headquarters was largely ignored by the mainstream media and the general public doesnâ€™t seem clued in to the neutrality issue.
But despite Googleâ€™s insistence to the contrary, this move represents economic pragmatism and unequivocal abandonment of core principles. Â Still, labeling Google â€œevilâ€ as protesters are doing, takes the argument too far and ignores the complexity of the companyâ€™s character and inherent challenge of balancing values and shareholder demands. After all, the company is still a trailblazing force for corporate good in areas like alternative energy. Â But for those who viewed Google as a magical land of free lunches and Foosball, where good always beats evil— this is a reminder that no company can be infallible.