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The Failure of Google’s “Do No Evil” Approach to Social Innovation

Yesterday’s extensive feature in The New York Times business section on Google.org’s failure to match its own lofty social innovation goals is a must read for anyone interested in the intersection of philanthropy, corporate social responsibility and information technology. The piece chronicles Google’s philanthropic endeavors since the firm issued its inaugural IPO in 2004 when Founder Larry Page announced Google would donate 1% of its equity plus employee in kind contributions to Google.org (or simply “Dot.Org”).

At press time Google’s market capitalization (per the handy Google Finance tool) is $192.05 billion with a balance sheet swimming in tens of billions of cash.

Google.org was conceived as a platform where the core business operations of the firm — search, search optimization and the bottomless delivery of free access to information for anyone with an Internet connection —  could be integrated to support social goals like environmental mapping and the provision of technology transfers in global regions with poor access to healthcare. Rather then simply disaggregate business operations from philantrophic programs, Google sought to engage in a business where solving social problems was the driving incubator for future R & D.

When hand-picked Dot.Org Executive Director and public health expert Dr. Larry Brilliant (perfect name) started the job, this is what he told The New York Times:

“Google.org can play the entire keyboard. It can start companies, build industries, pay consultants, lobby, give money to individuals and make a profit.”

As the Times story details, Dot.Org has not yet necessarily lived up to Larry Page’s broad vision. During Dr. Brilliant’s time at Google.org, the organization contributed $11 million to his former NGO, InSTEDD. While InSTEDD appears to be a worthy grantee, this hardly looks like an innovative approach to corporate philanthropy — giving cash to your friends.

I recall sitting at a Net Impact breakout session on social innovation and information technology at The Wharton School in Philadelphia in 2008 where a representative of Google was joined by CSR executives from Dell and HP. During the moment where all panelists were afforded a few minutes to outline their firm’s CSR strategy, the woman from Google.org proclaimed that Google had no CSR program, nor would the firm ever pursue one. To paraphrase, she told the panel Google “intended to do no evil” across its operations.

This has become Google’s mantra, but I find it to be more of a hallow catchphrase.

So what does this mean? How is “no evil” measured and verified? That’s the brilliance/duplicity of Google’s social innovation play: this mission cannot be substantiated, but it is also rarely questioned.

Google is the darling of American innovation and industry, even earning mention in the President’s State of the Union speech last week. All consumers — myself included — derive near constant value from Google’s suite of tools.

Perhaps emphasizing how their remarkable mapping and information-sharing technology do good globally would be a better approach than the “no evil” paradigm.

Clearly, there are limitless social returns on the information transfers Google provides the world. I admire Google for thinking big, but why not get working on an innovative way to verify how their tools do good, rather than doing a mediocre job of explaining how they do no evil?

Image credit by keso under a CC license via Flickr

Written by Lane Jost

A lifelong conservationist, angler, gardener and writer, Lane is a Corporate Responsibility strategy consultant based in Chicago, where he currently works a CR consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC).

Prior to joining PwC, Lane was a global sustainability performance and stakeholder engagement specialist for Sodexo North America. He has experience in microfinance program evaluation at Grameen Foundation. A former President of the Net Impact Chapter at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), Lane has a master's in International Development Economics from the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at UCSD (IR/PS) and a bachelor's in history and international studies from Kenyon College. Prior to working in the sustainable business sphere, Lane spent six years as a communications and marketing professional focusing on arts and culture in New York City, where his work included the creation of the jazz website gothamjazz.com and serving as the publicist for the New York Philharmonic.

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