‘Don’t be evil’. That’s the phrase a certain plucky young start-up named Google affixed to their wall in big, brand-specific colours back in 2000. It is now, as it was then, a noble sentiment, but one that surely must be growing harder to live by as the organisation’s interest and influence increases.
Such is the predicament faced by for tech giant today. The company has recently become entangled with the United States Department of Defense’s Project Maven and not everyone on the shop floor is thrilled about it.
Project Maven is a venture designed to bring computer algorithms to the war zone. Simply put, Google supplies the algorithms (that analyse drone footage and identify objects on the ground) and the Pentagon supplies the firepower. When put together, things explode.
Is that evil? In the fog that clouds the US war machine and its innumerable operations, that’s hard to say. CEO Eric Schmidt – who is also chair of the Silicon Valley-friendly Defence Innovation Board – doesn’t seem to think so. He’s issued a statement saying that Google’s work with the Pentagon is in a strictly “non-military capacity”.
The relationship is, however, warlike enough to trouble some 3000 Google employees who have signed an internal petitionurging the company to back out of its involvement with Project Maven.
“We believe that Google should not be in the business of war,” the petition reads. “Therefore we ask that Project Maven be cancelled, and that Google draft, publicise and enforce a clear policy stating that neither Google nor its contractors will ever build warfare technology.”
“This plan will irreparably damage Google’s brand and its ability to compete for talent.”
“We cannot outsource the moral responsibility of our technologies to third parties…Building this technology to assist the US Government in military surveillance — and potentially lethal outcomes — is not acceptable.”
The document requests the immediate cancellation of the project and creation of a policy stating that neither Google nor its contractors will ever build “warfare technology”.
It’s a strange development. Obviously many Google employees take the company’s ‘Don’t Be Evil’ credo seriously enough that a perceived violation of its principles is a problem for the company.
Are we entering a moment where the employees of tech giants are becoming, for all intents and purposes, the conscience of the populace? It sound a little absurd, but if not them, who?
Google’s influence continues to grow, and with it, collateral damage from its actions. Sure, Google’s relationship with the US Defence forces is unsurprising, but neither is public blowback from such an arrangement.
The company’s cavalier attitude to user data and privacy has lead to some bad press recently. If Google does indeed plan to stand by its increasingly problematic catchline, perhaps dropping development of weaponized drone tech is the first step – from a PR perspective at least – to reclaiming the public’s hearts and minds.