The dangerous ethics behind Google's transparency claims

In an open letter to the attorney general and FBI chief, Google displays privilege, problems behind "don't be evil"

Published June 11, 2013 10:44PM (EDT)

Google CEO Eric Schmidt said this in 2009: "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place."

The comment, viewed now, may vex the millions of Google users either surprised and outraged, or unsurprised but still outraged, at the news that through the NSA's PRISM program, the government has gained nearly boundless access to information about our Google-hosted communications. But this is about more than throwing up our smartphones and sighing, "We knew all along." Schmidt's 2009 comment expressed something at the very core of Google's ideology -- reduced to the company's corporate slogan -- "Don't Be Evil." With an ill-defined and ill-thought moralism at its foundation, the tech giant has been able to champion transparency and user privacy while at the same time marching in goose step with government and other industry players effectively establishing a totalized surveillance state.

On Tuesday, in the wake of the NSA revelations, Google published an open letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI chief Robert Mueller. The letter asks the government to permit Google to publish more national security data requests, currently kept secret under gag order. It's more than a letter; it's an artifact. This is not just a tech giant, implicated in a bombshell scandal, attempting to save face. The letter is honest in its statement that "We have always made clear that we comply with valid legal requests." What Google wants now is the ability to be more transparent, explicitly about what is transparently the case: There is a surveillance state, propped up by the tech industry. It's not about to retract itself, but Google wants to tell you more about it. The letter notes:

We therefore ask you to help make it possible for Google to publish in our Transparency Report aggregate numbers of national security requests, including FISA disclosures—in terms of both the number we receive and their scope. Google’s numbers would clearly show that our compliance with these requests falls far short of the claims being made. Google has nothing to hide.

There is, in this missive, the same dangerous optimism inscribed in the company's slogan and underpinning Schmidt's 2009 comments: We have nothing to hide, no evil here, only evil need hide. It's an attitude born of the sort of Silicon Valley liberalism that fails to look outside its cubicles and Burning Man reunions. It ignores that what gets to "be evil" perhaps does not align with their bright-eyed, well-remunerated optimism. Google is being genuine with its desire for greater transparency -- but in so doing it performs the great violence of not recognizing the complicated nexus of power that gets to determine what or who is evil or good, and so what or who can be transparent. It is beyond the purview of this post to more than posit my personal view, which is: That which can be transparent, without fear of persecution, will always be co-extensive with that which poses no real threat to the current socio-politico-economic status quo.

As a technologist friend of mine, well attuned to the Silicon Valley mentality, pointed out, Google's ethics end up essentially following this schema: One should a) want people to know your deviances or b) not be doing "bad" things. The ethics apply as much to the individual Gmail user as they do the government (hence the tech giant's genuine request that the government allow for greater transparency). But transparency here is underpinned by an immense privilege, which also (either purposefully or naively -- the effect is the same) ignores the operation of the state and capital.

Sure, be as transparent as you like about your fetishes, your kinks and your drug habits when you're wealthy and white -- that's not evil. In fact, if we were just more transparent, no one would even call this deviance, right? But what if you're not wealthy and white? Take, for example, the very fact that George Zimmerman's defense attorneys are attempting to paint deceased teen Trayvon Martin as a violent, dangerous person by using phone records, which show texts to friends about smoking weed -- he was pretty transparent about that. Or, what about Bradley Manning's admissions to Adrian Lamo about his gender and sexuality preferences and battles -- no evil there, by Google's lights, but it has been used in attempts to suggest the whistle-blower was not of sound mind when leaking classified government documents. "Don't be evil" points to a moral center without coordinates; if Google technologists were to truly unpack their own slogan they would realize that very few people indeed get the privilege to not "be evil" or considered potentially evil in our context. At base Google is failing to recognize its position in a constellation of power structures -- a constellation (call it the State, capital, Empire) that will crush anything that threatens it, while assimilating that which doesn't.

In his recent New York Times Op-Ed critiquing Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen's book "The New Digital Age," Julian Assange nails the problem with the Google men's idealism:

Google will interpose itself, and hence the United States government, between the communications of every human being not in China (naughty China). Commodities just become more marvelous; young, urban professionals sleep, work and shop with greater ease and comfort; democracy is insidiously subverted by technologies of surveillance, and control is enthusiastically rebranded as “participation”; and our present world order of systematized domination, intimidation and oppression continues, unmentioned, unafflicted or only faintly perturbed.

The early cyberneticians' dreams of a unified humanity, freed by technology and open data, has not come true. Google seems to posit that it still can, we just need less evil, more transparency -- from the "people" toward the authorities, from the authorities toward their people -- which will conjure some new and shining equilibrium, all watched over by machines of loving grace. No evil. That may play just fine at Burning Man, but what about the rest of the world?

By Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email

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Don't Be Evil Eric Schmidt Google Nsa Privacy Surveillance Transparency