At a point between the end of April and the start of May this year, Google quietly dropped its motto, “don’t be evil” from the top of its company-wide code of conduct. The phrase now lives on in the ethics pledge, as a very hedge-y sentence: “And remember…don’t be evil, and if you see something that you think isn’t right—speak up!”
Scraping the direct appeal of “don’t be evil” for the ambivalence of its replacement would feel less ironic if the company weren’t currently embroiled in a internal drama over recent work its conducted on behalf of the U.S. Department of Defense (sorta evil, guys). The real irony of the matter is since Gizmodo revealed in March that the company has contributed to the Maven program, developing an AI that can interpret images that could be used for more efficient drone strikes, employees have actually taken up the suggestion of the new charter, which has embroiled Sergey Brin’s company in internal turmoil.
In the weeks since the contract was first reported, some 4,000 Google employees have signed an open letter demanding that the company cease its military contracts. It asks for the company to “enforce a clear policy stating that neither Google nor its contractors will ever build warfare technology. We believe that Google should not be in the business of war,” reads the letter, addressed to Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai. Dozens of senior engineers at the company have resigned in protest. Bowing to the internal pressure, Google has since announced they’re pulling out of the Maven project by refusing to renew their contract in 2019. But the company can’t quite get its taste for military work out of its mouth, leaving the door open for further defense contract work and self-aggrandizement.
Last Thursday, the New York Times reported on a companywide meeting discussing Google’s role in the Maven project and whether the company should engage in military projects going forward. It’s clear that “don’t be evil” has given way to something far more unsettling: a credulous belief in the innocence of tech. From the Times:
Last Thursday, Mr. Brin, the company’s co-founder, responded to a question at a companywide meeting about Google’s work on Maven. According to two Google employees, Mr. Brin said he understood the controversy and had discussed the matter extensively with Mr. Pichai. However, he said he thought that it was better for peace if the world’s militaries were intertwined with international organizations like Google rather than working solely with nationalistic defense contractors.
Moving forward the company plans to publish new ethical guidelines around the development of AI for military use. Google said after last week’s meeting that it hoped to come up with guidelines that “stood the test of time,” according to the Times report.