Just how evil is Google?

Google knew it was breaking U.S. laws by running ads for foreign pharmaceuticals -- and did it anyway. What else have the Googlers been lying about?

In today's episode of Notes From the Field we jump right over the question of "Has Google violated its famous 'Don't be evil' mantra?" and go straight to "By how much?"

Ben Edelman says they're plenty evil, and it's time to reconsider in a new light all of the mistakes Google has "accidentally" made –- from its ad policies to Wi-Fi spying -- following its recent settlement with the Department of Justice over pharma ads.

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Edelman is a Harvard Law professor and a serious geek who made his bones by exposing spyware and adware companies. He's since moved on to research Google's collusion with typosquatters and how its search toolbars track consumers even after they opt out, to name but a few topics.

The background: For a period of several years, Google allowed Canadian pharmacies to advertise their wares in the United States, despite laws prohibiting advertisements from non-U.S. pill-pushers. Google claimed it had no idea this was happening, and once it discovered the illegal ads, it put an end to the practice. However, in papers filed with the DOJ, the ad giant admits that it knew it was breaking the law all along, but pocketed the money just the same.

Google is now paying a $500 million fine for its transgressions, which leads me to conclude that it made significantly more than that from foreign pharma ads.

(As an aside: For the record, I'm no fan of Big Pharma. As cartels go, they make OPEC look like a high school glee club. I see no reason why pills that cost 5 cents in Windsor, Canada, should cost $5 when they cross the river into Detroit. But I don't make the laws -- Congress and handsomely paid lobbyists do. OK, I'm done now.)

Edelman's point: Google knew it was breaking U.S. law and lied about it.

These admissions and the associated documents confirm what I had long suspected: Not only does Google often ignore its stated "policies," but in fact Google staff affirmatively assist supposed "rule-breakers" when Google finds it profitable to do so….

…Google has an obvious incentive to allow deceptive and unlawful ads: each extra advertising means extra revenue… Furthermore, unlawful and deceptive ads have been widespread; I found dozens in just a few hours of work. Meanwhile, it's hard to reconcile Google's engineering strength -- capably indexing billions of pages and tabulating billions of links -- with the company's supposed inability to identify new advertisements mentioning or targeting a few dozen terms known to deceive consumers…. Unlawful ads persist at Google not just because advertisers seek to be listed, but also because Google intentionally lets them stay and even offers them special assistance.

Which begs the question: What else has Google lied about? Edelman suggests that Google's inability to filter copyrighted materials from YouTube, its profiting from unlawful typosquatting, the "glitch" in its search toolbar that continued to track users across the Web after they thought they had disabled it, and the Wi-Fi spying debacle all might fall under the category of "We knew it was wrong but we did it anyway."

Remember, Google is not a monolith. And though it is engineering-driven, it's also money-driven. I suspect there's a huge gulf between the geeky product-creating side of Google and the moneymaking side, and those high-minded "Don't be evil" ethics don't have enough gas to cross the chasm.

Salespeople are not rewarded for how closely they hue to the rules; they're rewarded for how much money they bring in. Ethics? Sure, but only if they don't cut into profits. (See Big Pharma, above.)

Edelman does consult for companies that compete with Google, like Microsoft. And he does seem to have a particular obsession with the Googlers over the past few years, to the exclusion of nearly anything else. But I doubt he'd risk his considerable reputation by doing dirty work for his clients. 

My take: I still can't believe Google would have intentionally sucked down data via Wi-Fi spying -– that sounds too paranoid to me, and with very little upside for the company. As for the rest? It all makes sense and -- more important in Mountain View -– a ton of money for Google.

On a scale of 1 to 10, just how evil is Google -– and what makes them so bad? Cast your votes below or email me: cringe@infoworld.com.

This article, "Just how evil is Google?," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter.

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