Google just turned 20 — time for it to grow up

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Google was incorporated on September 4th 1998 with the unofficial motto “Don’t be evil.” In the two decades since, its risen from a blip on the technology radar to become one of the most valuable companies in the history of the world. The motto only lasted 19 years.

The company’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, were a couple of college students with ideas about the internet that changed everything. It would have been impossible for them, then, to know they were building a company that would eclipse Microsoft and Intel in value.

Last year, in celebration of the 19th anniversary of its incorporation, TNW ran a cute article showing how Google has changed its website’s look over the years. It was a fun trip down memory lane for those of us old enough to appreciate it.

This year, the website looks about the same as it did in 2017 – it’s the company itself that’s changed.

The unofficial motto “Don’t be evil” was replaced, in the preface of the company’s code of conduct, with “do the right thing” earlier this year. Google still has the phrase “don’t be evil” written in its code of conduct, but in years prior it was heavily emphasized and served as a simple way of expressing the company’s ideals.

Some tech reporters thought this was a good thing: Google was updating for the modern world. Others pointed out that Alphabet, Google’s parent company, uses the “do the right thing” phrasing and it was just unifying paperwork. But, whether intentional not, the timing of that minor phrasing change coincided with a distinct departure from the ethics and values its employees and consumers had come to expect.

In case you missed it, Google was heavily involved in Project Maven, a US military endeavor to use artificial intelligence to sort through video and photographs taken by drones, among other things. The company defended the contract by stating it wasn’t involved in any efforts to weaponize AI, but thousands of its own employees lambasted senior leadership with protests calling the company’s actions unethical.

And all of that was before President Donald Trump, who was embarrassingly wrong, declared that Google was silencing conservative voices. His objection may be based on pure fiction, but that Google has raised the ire of both the left and right simultaneously is telling: Few other things have united US politicians recently.

Today the news is no better. Employees last month petitioned against the company’s alleged plans to build a censored search engine for China. And today CEO Sundar Pichai has signaled to US lawmakers that neither he, nor the company’s senior leadership, has any intent of answering a summons to testify before Congress concerning Russian interference into US elections.

For 19 years it seemed like Google knew who it was: A company trying not to be evil in a capitalist’s world – something that’s incredibly difficult to do. But in 2018, the business calling itself Google is unrecognizable, potentially evil, and apparently struggling to figure out what “do the right thing” means.

Obviously a lot can change in a year. Get your shit together Google.

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