Another Way to Not Be Evil

November 30th, 2011

By now, I’m sure you’ve heard Google’s informal and now iconic motto “Don’t be Evil.” Google describes this slogan as twofold. To the company, the motto is first about providing its “users unbiased access to information, focusing on their needs and giving them the best products and services.” Second, it is more generally about “doing the right thing,” including “following the law, acting honorably and treating each other with respect.” While some on this blog (and even Steve Jobs once) have accurately pointed out ways in which Google has failed to act by this code, in many other ways, the company also strives to live up to this motto.

Google’s motto, whether or not it is sincere, invites two responses. First, and perhaps most obviously, it attracts intense scrutiny from individuals, advocacy organizations, and the media. When it fails to live up to a particular moral standard—from tax evasion to children’s doodles—it garners intense criticism. But second, it invites a constant stream of requests from the public on how it might follow its motto. The most prominent examples currently are net neutrality and government censorship.

This constant stream is not a bad thing. The public should engage with corporations to encourage them to be more socially, environmentally, and politically responsible. Google’s concise motto might invite an onslaught of requests, but it also opens a dialogue. Particularly when Google is willing to respond. At the very least, it encourages the public to think about communication with corporations as a two way street.

SumOfUs—a global movement of consumers, investors and workers—is starting another one of these (for now, one sided) dialogues with Google. This time, the dialogue centers around one evil that we should all have a particular grievance with: the Chamber of Commerce. SumOfUs recently launched a website urging Google to quit the Chamber. It asks users to vote on which reasons Google should do this, including: “The US Chamber of Commerce is pushing for a “tax holiday” for multinational corporations to ‘promote job growth.’ Last time there was a tax holiday, corporations actually cut jobs!” and “The US Chamber sought lighter sentences for those involved in Enron’s collapse.”

The Chamber also, incidentally, is waging a war on the FCPA, the flagship U.S. legislation that makes it illegal to bribe a foreign official. For months now, the Chamber has been lobbying to weaken the FCPA and has even retained former U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey to help. According to a compelling article by Raymond Baker, Director of Global Financial Integrity, the Chamber’s requests include (among many others) giving “subsidiaries of multinational companies a loose rein” with the FCPA so that the actions of a foreign subsidiary should not expose the parent company to liability and limiting successor liability in cases of mergers and acquisitions.

And it isn’t only Google that may have an ideological schism with this morally and politically disastrous agenda. A group of socially-conscious shareholders at some of largest U.S. corporations—including IBM and Pepsi— are loudly contesting their firms’ involvement in lobbying efforts by the Chamber to undermine the FCPA. Timothy Smith, a leading voice in the fight, argues, for 25 years IBM has had “a very strong policy on bribery and people would be fired if they tried.  Their position is strongly stated by top executives in the board.  Now, at the same time, the Chamber is trying to lobby to reduce the impact.”

Google may, in fact, already be considering abandoning its Chamber membership, because of its support for the House Stop Online Piracy Act, which could punish Web companies if copyright materials like movies, songs or software appear on their sites. But the new petition on the array of other reasons Google should consider walking out adds fodder to this fuel. Maybe they’ll listen and maybe they won’t. And least we’ve started talking to Google  about it, even if they haven’t yet started talking back.

Written by Ann Hollingshead

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