As Google reaches its 25th anniversary, this report explores the evolution of the company’s ethos from its former, famed “Don’t be evil” mantra. Research demonstrates that the Google of today is a far cry from its once idealistic vision of itself. Today, Google is a willing purveyor of disinformation and radicalization; a threat to national security and human rights; and a danger to children. Further, the company’s culture is rife with racism and sexism; shows an utter disregard for consumer privacy; and displays rampant anticompetitive behavior, which has led to investigations, fines, and litigation.
Shortly after Google’s inception in 1998, two early employees introduced the “Don’t be evil” slogan, symbolizing its commitment to ethical conduct. As reported by Vox, “In Google’s early days, applying the mantra of don’t be evil was simple: don’t let advertisers buy their way to the top of search results, don’t charge people to find information, don’t spam people with banner ads on the homepage.” However, Google has strayed far from those idealistic roots.
Over the course of the last 25 years, Google’s actions have raised numerous ethical concerns. This report will outline how the company has become:
- a willing purveyor of disinformation & political radicalization
- a threat to national security and human rights
- a danger to children’s safety & wellbeing
- a company culture rife with racism, sexism & censorship
- a profiteer of climate disinformation & funder of climate denial
- an abuser of consumer data and privacy
- a monopolistic corporate empire intent on anticompetitive behavior
Willing Purveyors Of Disinformation & Radicalization
Since acquiring YouTube, Google has grown the company into the most dominant social media platform in the U.S. It has become a force for radicalization both in the U.S. and around the world. The New York Times reported in 2019 on how YouTube “created a dangerous on-ramp to extremism” by combining a business model that rewards provocative content and an algorithm trained to maximize viewing time.
Furthermore, USA Today reported, “Study after study has shown that YouTube serves as a megaphone for white supremacists and other hate groups and a pipeline for recruits.” Google leadership, including former YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, ignored repeated warnings about the rise of hate speech and conspiracy theories on YouTube. Even with this evidence, Google has continued to double down on the “addiction engine” of YouTube’s recommendation algorithm.
Threat To National Security & Human Rights
Google has immense influence over geopolitical discourse. As such, they have a responsibility to act ethically and protect human rights in the United States and abroad. Their actions haven’t heeded this responsibility.
Google’s head of international relations was pushed out in 2019 after spending years advocating for an internal human rights program. He observed, “I didn’t change. Google changed. … Now when I think about ‘Don’t be evil,’ it’s been relegated to a footnote in the company’s statements.”
As another example, YouTube was a powerful tool for Russian propaganda outlet RT to spread disinformation, and YouTube proudly partnered with the organization for years. The New York Times described YouTube and RT as enjoying a “long and mutually beneficial relationship.” In 2013, a YouTube executive joined RT in studio to celebrate the channel hitting 1 billion views. The executive praised RT for providing “authentic” content instead of “agendas or propaganda.”
Through 2017, YouTube included RT in its “preferred” news lineup program, granting the organization access to guaranteed revenue with premium advertisers, effectively subsidizing Russian propaganda. As recently as 2022, RT marketed itself as “the most-watched news network on YouTube.”
Weeks into Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, YouTube and Google continued to uplift Russian propaganda about the war. In early March 2022, a Grid Investigation described YouTube as “one of the most effective online platforms for the Kremlin to spread toxic misinformation” in Russian-language propaganda videos that were viewed millions of times. In addition, a 2022 NewsGuard analysis found Google Ads running on more than a dozen websites publishing propaganda about the war in Ukraine as part of the “broader ecosystem of Russian disinformation.”
Google has also courted the Chinese market and allowed Chinese state entities to spread disinformation and propaganda as well as censor content. From 2006 to 2010, Google ran a censored version of its search engine platform in China that complied with the country’s strict censorship laws, including suppressing results on free speech and the Tiananmen Square massacre.
In 2018, Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai referred to China as a “wonderful, innovative market.” In 2018, Google invested in a new censored version of its search engine that would comply with Chinese law. The project was abandoned after public and internal backlash, including a coalition of 14 leading human rights groups calling the project “an alarming capitulation by Google on human rights.”
And it should be noted, during the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, Chinese state media used YouTube to spread disinformation, and Google actively removed a mobile game app from its Google Play Store that allowed players to role-play as a Hong Kong protester.
Danger To Children
On multiple occasions, Google has navigated around regulations aimed at safeguarding the privacy of children. This report will outline a few incidents. In 2010, a Google engineer was fired after an outside source told the company the engineer had spent months stalking and spying on at least four underage teens’ accounts – including call, chat, and email – without their consent.
In 2019, Google was forced to pay a record $170 million to settle a federal investigation into allegations of YouTube illegally collecting data on children. Subsequently, Google submitted comments to the FTC during its review of child privacy rules objecting to any updates that would require the platform to “identify and police” content aimed at children. As recently as August 2023, watchdog groups found evidence that YouTube was providing targeted advertising and facilitating data tracking on videos aimed at children in potential violation of child privacy law.
Moreover, Google refuses to protect kids from disturbing and violent content on YouTube. Violent and inappropriate content disguised as children’s content has plagued both YouTube and YouTube Kids, including videos containing violent and lewd situations, often featuring well-known children’s characters. A 2018 review found YouTube Kids app suggested conspiracy videos to children, including claims the world is flat, the moon landing was faked, and that the planet is ruled by reptile-human hybrids.
Even after repeated assurances and alleged fixes, YouTube continues to serve violent and inappropriate content to kids in 2023. A Tech Transparency Project review found YouTube recommended hundreds of videos on school shootings, explicit content on guns, and other graphic content to kids as young as nine years old.
Google has failed to seriously address protecting kids from sexual abuse and exploitation on YouTube. In 2017, the BBC published multiple reports showing that YouTube’s system for reporting sexually abusive behavior on the platform – often seen in predatory behavior in the comments section of kids’ videos – was functionally useless with a “huge backlog of reports, some months old.”
Two years later, YouTube faced another round of reports of continued predatory behavior in the comments section of children’s videos. The Verge observed that “the heart of the problem is YouTube’s recommendation algorithm.” In addition to the dangers of YouTube comments sections, YouTube platformed numerous videos featuring child exploitation. Buzzfeed reported the videos were “rampant and easy to find. What’s more, they were allegedly on YouTube’s radar.”
Company Culture Laden With Racism, Sexism, & Censorship
Beyond its external challenges, Google has also encountered internal problems related to a pervasive company culture marked by racism, sexism, and claims of censorship. In 2014 and 2016, Google agreed to pay $135 million to two former top executives accused of sexual misconduct. When the severance agreements came to light in 2018, thousands of Google employees staged a walkout.
In 2022, a former Black employee sued the company over systemic discrimination, including placing Black workers in lower-level jobs, underpaying them, and denying them opportunities for advancement. When multiple employees complained about racism and sexism in the workplace, instead of taking swift action to rectify the harm, Google advised employees to seek mental health care. A leading AI ethics researcher who was fired for publishing research on bias in AI systems said of her experience at Google, “your life gets worse when you start advocating for underrepresented people.”
Furthermore, in 2019, Google hired former Trump administration official Miles Taylor who defended the xenophobic Muslim travel ban and helped promote the “zero tolerance” policy that forcibly separated migrant children from their parents.
Though they try to stay inconspicuous about it, Google has a track record of building deep relationships with far-right conservatives, including partnering with conservative think tanks. In 2018, Google sponsored CPAC – which featured white nationalists and conspiracy theorists as speakers – and held an invite-only reception at the event. Google’s public policy director at the time, Adam Kovacevich, who now leads a Google-funded tech trade association, defended the CPAC partnership, saying it helped to build “a lot of good will” among conservatives and “tangible outcome[s].”
Lastly, Google has engaged in labor violations and crackdowns on employee activism and speech, including retaliating against workers for organizing, surveilling employees, and underpaying thousands of workers.
Profiteering From Climate Disinformation & Funding Climate Denial Groups
The harm doesn’t stop there. YouTube’s algorithm has consistently pushed climate disinformation content. A 2020 study found over 21 million views on videos promoting false and misleading climate information, many of which were recommended by YouTube.
In October 2021, Google claimed it would demonetize climate denial content and no longer serve ads on YouTube videos or website content promoting climate change disinformation. Yet, as of May 2023, Google continued to serve ads on videos promoting climate disinformation. Another study found at least 100 videos viewed at least 18 million times that promoted climate denial while serving ads that generated revenue for Google.
Google backed organizations that opposed efforts to combat climate change and denied climate change was a problem. Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai is a member of the Business Roundtable, which fought landmark climate change legislation. Google is also a member of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which denies climate science and was instrumental in convincing the Trump administration to dismantle the Paris Climate Accord.
Additionally, Google listed itself as a member in 2023 of the following organizations, which have expressed skepticism of climate action or collaborated with and supported climate deniers:
- American Enterprise Institute
- Federalist Society
- Independent Women’s Forum
- U.S. Chamber of Commerce
Disregard For Consumer Privacy
From 2006 to 2010, Google’s Street View cars accessed and collected massive amounts of consumers’ personal data – including emails, passwords, and medical and financial records – via unsecured Wi-Fi networks. The company initially claimed that the data collection was a “mistake” – however, investigators later learned Google engineers had intentionally created software for the Street View cars to intercept the data. Google relentlessly tried to interfere in the investigation, resulting in a $25,000 fine issued by the Federal Communications Commission.
In 2016, Google ended the policy that kept users’ personally identifiable information separate from ad tracking cookies and enabled the setting by default for all new users. ProPublica reported it was “a sea change for Google and a further blow to the online ad industry’s longstanding contention that web tracking is mostly anonymous.”
From at least 2014 through 2018, Google regularly tracked users’ location data and histories even when users had disabled location tracking services. In 2022, Google agreed to pay $392 million to settle an investigation into its location tracking practices, brought by a group of state attorneys general.
Investigations, Fines, & Litigation Over Rampant Anticompetitive Behavior
In 2020, the Department of Justice (DOJ) filed an antitrust suit over Google’s monopoly in the search engine business, finding the company used illegal business practices to establish and maintain its hold on roughly 80% of all general internet search queries.
In 2023, the DOJ and eight state attorneys general filed an antitrust suit over the company’s ad business, alleging it “used anticompetitive, exclusionary, and unlawful means to eliminate or severely diminish any threat to its dominance over digital advertising technologies.” In an internal communication, one Google exec warned of its ad business, “the analogy would be if Goldman or Citibank owned the NYSE.”
Google’s complicity in disseminating disinformation, compromising national security, endangering children online, an eroding ethical company culture, manipulating climate discourse, trampling on privacy rights, and antitrust behavior underscores how far the company has evolved away from “don’t be evil.”
The reported findings emphasize the urgency for legislators, regulators, the media, and the public at large to examine Google’s behavior. Legislators and regulators must take action, first to ensure that Google complies with existing law, and second, to ensure that the law has kept up with the myriad ways that large technology companies exercise power over society. Legislators and regulators have a duty to protect consumers and the public from Google’s behavior, particularly around safety, security, and privacy. The public also has an interest in ensuring that Google competes fairly within the marketplace, rather than harming the economy through anticompetitive behavior.
With this century’s rise of social media platforms, Washington has categorically failed to anticipate the dangers and side effects of Silicon Valley’s Big Tech giants like Google and act responsibly to mitigate them. Echoing the monopolies of bygone eras, Google will continue its pattern of predatory behavior as we fold new technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning into our broader economy. If the past is prologue, the only remedy is for lawmakers and regulators to step up to the plate by enforcing existing laws and passing new laws that protect consumers, small businesses, and our democracy.