On Thursday, the second most valuable company in the world announced that one of its chieftains was stepping down. Eric Schmidt, 62 and enormously wealthy, said he would leave his post as executive chairman at Alphabet for an advisory role with the company. Alphabet is the parent company of Google, whose online empire Schmidt presided over as CEO and executive chairman for 17 years of unrelenting growth.
Schmidt—a software engineer, seasoned executive, tabloid regular, and Burning Man enthusiast—isn’t exactly pulling a Thoreau to live in a tent outside his mother’s place or anything. Rather, he said he’s going off to work on “science and technology issues”—which, CNBC reports, may include advising the company’s urban development division, Sidewalk Labs, as well as some health care projects with the company. As he walks away from the internet leviathan he once shepherded, it’s worth reflecting on the web he helped to build, and the various discomforts it has erased. (Not for nothing did he once say that Google’s policy is to “get right up to the creepy line.”) It’s one where free services are powered by advertising and paid for with our data, a bargain that fundamentally reshaped our relationship with corporations, particularly (but not only) large internet companies. Google’s customers are advertisers. The people who use many of its most popular services are the products, with advertisers paying for access to our attention. YouTube, Gmail, Google Docs, Maps, Search—all are free for the low price of your privacy.
(Disclosure: Schmidt is the former chairman of the board of New America, a think tank that partners with Slate and Arizona State University in Future Tense, a project about emerging technologies. Schmidt, his family foundation, and Google have all donated money to New America. In August 2017 a former New America employee who was critical of Google alleged that he was fired because Schmidt held undue influence at the organization, a charge New America denied.)
Before Schmidt became a Googler, the young company abided by that famous guiding philosophy: “Don’t be evil.” The slogan helped inspire trust from its customers, who knew or didn’t much consider that they were getting free, high-quality tech in exchange for allowing it to trace their every move on the site. Schmidt took the free-for-your-data bargain and ran with it, laying the foundation for a multibillion-dollar ad business that now bolsters one of the most powerful companies in the world.
On some level, Schmidt always thought the slogan was kind of silly. It had been in place before he arrived at the company in 2001. “When I showed up,” he said in a 2013 interview on Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!, “I thought this was the stupidest rule ever, because there's no book about evil except maybe, you know, the Bible or something.” Evil, in other words, could mean anything. When Google was reorganized to become Alphabet in 2015, the new company decided to abandon the mantra and replace it with a call to “do the right thing.”
Under Schmidt’s leadership, Google notched its fair share of not-quite-not-evil missteps. After getting everyone hooked on Gmail and Search, the company started to erode some of its original privacy promises. In 2012, when Schmidt was the executive chairman, the company decided your data would be shared across all your Google accounts. When you watch something on YouTube, the resulting data becomes linked to your email account. If you do an online search for something embarrassing in Chrome and someone uses your computer when you’re still logged in, that search may influence what ads they see, potentially giving away your private curiosities.
And Google Search, its most popular product, has a long history of failing to prevent racist and bigoted results from surfacing. It wasn’t until 2013 that Google launched an update to stop showing mugshots prominently in search results, which were haunting people who had any history of arrest when, for instance, they were job-hunting or trying to establish any kind of online presence. If you Googled “three black teenagers” last year, you were likely to see three mugshots, but searching for “three white teenagers” would get you three white teens laughing. If you searched for an image of Michelle Obama in 2009, you may have first seen an offensive photo of the first lady depicted as a monkey. When a journalist started typing “Are Jews” into Google search in 2016, the company suggested “evil” as the third word, navigating a user to a page confirming that yes appears to be the answer; similar anti-Semitic results surfaced when searching for “Jew” on Google in 2004. This year, journalists found the company let advertisers target users based on racist and anti-Semitic phrases. Sure, some this happened after Alphabet ditched the lofty slogan, but the company’s inertia in these areas was long established.
Either not being evil didn’t mean not being racist, or the company’s executives never prioritized the mission to the point that it meant excising hatred and bias from Google’s services. Or maybe it didn’t pause enough to ask whether it was being evil, or whether a seemingly benign action might have evil consequences. (And there’s a strong chance that Google would be better at preventing its algorithms from perpetuating bigotry and stereotypes if there were more diversity among its executive team.)
While all this happened, of course, modern life became dependent on Google, and certainly easier thanks to it. We can find what we want in seconds online. We’d be lost in new cities without it. Try getting a job without an email address, and why on Earth would anyone make a new email address with a Yahoo or Hotmail account these days? Want to upload a video you made to share with the world—YouTube is where you’re bound to get the most views. Want to collaborate on a memo? You’re using Google Docs. For all that, we can thank the company that became one of the most important nodes in our lives, its unchecked growth powered in part perhaps because it compromised its ethos. And we can thank the man who didn’t necessarily embrace evil, but who didn’t not embrace it, either.