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Playboy Interview - Google Guys
  • July 27, 2009 : 00:07
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Playboy: Companies tried to buy you, too. Did you ever consider selling Google?

Google Guys: No. We think we're an important company, and we're dedicated to doing this over the long term. We like being independent.

Playboy: Is your company motto really "Don't be evil"?

Google Guys: Yes, it's real.

Playboy: Is it a written code?

Google Guys: Yes. We have other rules, too.

Page: We allow dogs, for example.

Brin: As for "Don't be evil," we have tried to define precisely what it means to be a force for good -- always to do the right, ethical thing. Ultimately, "Don't be evil" seems the easiest way to summarize it.

Page: Apparently people like it better than "Be good."

Brin: It's not enough not to be evil. We also actively try to be good.

Playboy: Who ultimately decides what is evil? Eric Schmidt, your CEO, once said, "Evil is whatever Sergey decides is evil."

Google Guys: That was not one of his best quotes, though it's memorable.

Playboy: How does it work?

Google Guys: We deal with all varieties of information. Somebody's always upset no matter what we do. We have to make a decision; otherwise there's a neverending debate. Some issues are crystal clear. When they're less clear and opinions differ, sometimes we have to break a tie. For example, we don't accept ads for hard liquor, but we accept ads for wine. It's just a personal preference. We don't allow gun ads, and the gun lobby got upset about that. We don't try to put our sense of ethics into the search results, but we do when it comes to advertising.

Playboy: Who decides that wine is all right but hard liquor isn't?

Google Guys: We collect input. I think we do a good job of deciding. As I said, we believe that "Don't be evil" is only half of it. There's a "Be good" rule also.

Playboy: How are you good?

Google Guys: We have Google grants that give advertising to nonprofit organizations. A couple hundred nonprofits -- ranging from the environment to health to education to preventing various kinds of abuse by governments -- receive free advertising on Google.

Page: We're also working to set up a Google foundation that will have even broader initiatives. The "Be good" concept also comes up when we design our products. We want them to have positive social effects. For example, we just released Gmail, a free e-mail service. We said, "We will not hold your e-mail hostage." We will make it possible for you to get your e-mail out of Gmail if you ever want to.

Brin: You won't have to stay with us just to keep your address.

Page: Which is something we view as a social good.

Brin: Another social good is simply providing a free and powerful communication service to everyone in the world. A schoolchild in Cambodia can have a Gmail account.

Playboy: But Yahoo and MSN's Hotmail already offer free e-mail accounts.

Google Guys: This one has one gigabyte of storage -- 200 times more.

Playboy: But there's a catch. You have stated that you will scan e-mail in order to target advertisements based on its content. As a San Jose Mercury News columnist wrote, "If Google ogles your e-mail, could Ashcroft be far behind?"

Google Guys: When people first read about this feature, it sounded alarming, but it isn't. The ads correlate to the message you're reading at the time. We're not keeping your mail and mining it or anything like that. And no information whatsoever goes out.

Playboy: Regardless, it's analogous to someone looking over our shoulder as we write private messages.

Google Guys: You should trust whoever is handling your e-mail.

Brin: We need to be protective of the mail and of people's privacy. If you have people's e-mail, you have to treat that very seriously. We do. Everyone who handles e-mail has that responsibility.

Playboy: The Electronic Privacy Information Center equates such monitoring with a telephone operator listening to your conversations and pitching ads while you talk.

Google Guys: That's what Hotmail and Yahoo do, don't forget. They have big ads that interfere with your ability to use your mail. Our ads are more discreet and off to the side. Yes, the ads are related to what you are looking at, but that can make them more useful.

Page: During Gmail tests, people bought lots of things using the ads.

Brin: Today I got a message from a friend saying I should prepare a toast for another friend's birthday party. Off to the side were two websites I could go to that help prepare speeches. I like to make up my own speeches, but it's a useful link if I want to take advantage of it.

Playboy: Even that sounds ominous. We may not want anyone -- or any machine -- knowing we're giving a speech at a friend's birthday party.

Google Guys: Any web mail service will scan your e-mail. It scans it in order to show it to you; it scans it for spam. All I can say is that we are very up-front about it. That's an important principle of ours.

Playboy: But do you agree that it raises a privacy issue? If you scan for keywords that will trigger ads, you could easily scan for political content.

Google Guys: All we're doing is showing ads. It's automated. No one is looking, so I don't think it's a privacy issue. To me, if it's a choice between big, intrusive ads and our smaller ones, it's a pretty obvious choice. I've used Gmail for a while, and I like having the ads.

Playboy: Do the ads pay for the extra storage space?

Google Guys: Yes. Targeted advertising is an important component. We could have had glaring videos appear before you look at every message. That could generate revenue too. Our ads aren't distracting; they're helpful.

Page: I find it works well. And it's an example of the way we try to do good. It's a high-quality product. I like using it. Even if it seems a little spooky at first, it's useful, and it's a good way to support a valuable service.

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