The immorality of Google Inc.

When Internet users think of Google they typically associate the label ‘search engine’ with the company. But that does not classify Google as a corporation. With almost all of Google’s revenue deriving from placing ad copy on its search result pages and third party websites, Google Inc. is without a doubt an advertising company. The combined revenues Google receives from non-advertising products would likely not sustain Google’s workforce of currently 52,000 employees for more than a few weeks or finance money-loosing experiments such as self-driving cars.

Ranking the web

Google makes use of websites published by Internet users on the world wide web, claiming to be on a mission to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. After crawling the web’s content and storing the retrieved data on its servers a algorithm ranks web pages trying to match a given search string. The algorithm analyzes links assuming that web pages linked from many pages are likely to be important (PageRank). Then it computes a recursive score for pages, based on the weighted sum of the PageRanks of the pages linking to them. In addition to PageRank, Google, over the years, has added other criteria for determining the ranking of pages on result lists. However, the core of the algorithm to this day still seems to be PageRank which the founders thought to correlate well with human concepts of importance.

google-angel-devilWhat Google ranks

While the details of how Google ranks web pages is mostly quantitative (as in how many votes from websites point to a page) what Google ranks is likely more significant. Since the advent of the first search engines marketeers have tried to create web pages that would catch the attention of their potential clients by being placed prominently when searching the web. This desire has lead to the creation of a new industry with millions of self-taught marketeers attempting to match the algorithms developed by search engines. This new industry is referred to as Search Engine Optimization (SEO). Since Google dominates the search engine landscape most aspiring marketeers now focus their efforts on Google’s approach to rank pages alone. Some SEOs write content using their own creativity but more sophisticated SEOs will create thousands sometimes millions of web pages using software programs that match patterns the Google algorithm employs to identify relevance for any given search.

What Google sells

Almost 150 Million times an hour Google serves up results to users of its search engine. And more than five million times each hour users click on text used by Google clients to encourage, persuade, or manipulate its audience to take some action. Most commonly, the desired result of Google’s clients is to drive consumer behavior with respect to a commercial offering. And since the company with minor exceptions does not create content it has only one comodity to sell: its users (the product is you).

While this behaviour may not inherently be considered immoral the side effects of this ‘business practise’ on the world wide web and its users are significant. The following is a closer examination of the effects of Google on the Internet and users of the world wide web.

The classification of the world wide web

The world wide web is a digital commons. Digital commons is a term proposed by Mayo Fuster Morell is “an information and knowledge resources that are collectively created and owned or shared between or among a community and that tend to be non-exclusivedible, that is, be (generally freely) available to third parties. Thus, they are oriented to favor use and reuse, rather than to exchange as a commodity. Additionally, the community of people building them can intervene in the governing of their interaction processes and of their shared resources”. While Morell lists systems such as Wikipedia as example for digital commons the Internet and specfically the world wide web have been build by the world community at large and hence must be considered a commons itself.

Ethical use

To say that some act is unethical is to say that it violates moral laws, norms or standards. Moral law is used here in the narrow sense set forth by moral realism as a set of universal rules that apply to every human being individually or organized in groups or entities (i.e. corporations). Moral realism is a class of theories which hold that there are true moral statements that report objective moral facts. For example, while it might be conceded that forces of social conformity significantly shape individuals’ “moral” decisions, those cultural norms and customs do not define morally right behavior.

Caring for the commons is an act of individual long-term care for a given resource for the benefit of oneself and others including the resource itself (stewardship ) and collective trusteeship. It is the very essence of being ‘whole’, the fundamental basis of interdisciplinarity. It is one of the ways we have to acknowledge our debt to the past generations, and to embody our link to future generation. It shows we believe in ourselves as an enduring civilization, not an economy.

Caring for the commons means more than just regulating. Caretakers are needed, that is, a system nurturing societal cooperation, sharing of goods and thoughtfulness of generations to come. It entails establishing norms that reduce free riding and hold communities together. For our generation seems to be moving beyond viewing commons only as a norm, and taking action to enable and protect them in all spheres of our lives

Passing laws is relatively easy when public policy makers can unanimously identify behavior that is socially unacceptable. Policy makers can then attempt to enforce socially correct behavior through legal channels. However, in many other situations, it is far more difficult to determine what behavior the government should promote, if any. When a government seeks to implement a code of conduct that may conflict with the U.S. Constitution, the courts are generally called upon to determine the law’s validity.

In modern moral psychology, morality is considered to change through personal development. A number of psychologists have produced theories on the development of morals, usually going through stages of different morals. Lawrence Kohlberg, Jean Piaget, and Elliot Turiel have cognitive-developmental approaches to moral development; to these theorists morality forms in a series of constructive stages or domains. Social psychologists such as Martin Hoffman and Jonathan Haidt emphasize social and emotional development based on biology, such as empathy. Moral identity theorists, such as William Damon and Mordechai Nisan, see moral commitment as arising from the development of a self-identity that is defined by moral purposes: this moral self-identity leads to a sense of responsibility to pursue such purposes. Of historical interest in psychology are the theories of psychoanalysts such as Sigmund Freud, who believe that moral development is the product of aspects of the super-ego as guilt-shame avoidance.

Even though we have a sense of responsibility to pursue moral purposes,[according to whom?] we still, at least occasionally, engage in immoral behaviour. Such behaviours jeopardize our moral self-image; however, when we engage in immoral behaviours we still feel as though we are moral individuals. Moral self-licensing attempts to explain this phenomenon and proposes that self-image security increases our likelihood to engage in immoral behaviour. When our moral self-image is threatened, we can gain confidence from our past moral behaviour. The more confident we are, the less we will worry about our future behaviour which actually increases the likelihood that we will engage in immoral behaviours.