So Much For “Don’t Be Evil”: YouTube and Google Ethics on Display

The Business Insider has posted evidence gathered by Viacom in its lawsuit against Google, consisting primarily  of e-mails and instant messages. It is far from conclusive on the legal issues, which revolve around YouTube and Google’s unauthorized use of copyrighted material. It is very conclusive, however, regarding how often any ethics alarms went off with various Google and YouTube executives as they contemplated bottom line issues: rarely.

Here is a startling example.  In a 2005 e-mail exchange YouTube co-founder Steve Chen reasoned thusly:

“…If you look at the top videos on the site, it’s all from this type of [copyrighted] content. In a way, if you remove the potential copyright infringements, wouldn’t you still say these are “personal” videos? If you define “personal” to be on your personal hard drive that you want to upload and share with people? Anyway, if we do remove that stuff, site traffic and virality will drop to maybe 20% of what it is…I’d hate to prematurely attack a problem and end up just losing growth due to it.”

Interesting ethical theories, wouldn’t you say? I guess Chen would argue that the haul taken by the Brink’s robbers was “personal” too, since they were going to spend it on themselves and their families. And don’t we all just hate to stop unethical or illegal conduct while we’re still profiting and getting away with it? As for Google, the communications indicate that the company was well aware that YouTube’s value was being built by illicit use of property created and owned by others. Apparently “Don’t be evil,” Google’s famous creed, doesn’t mean you can’t knowingly make money from the work of other people doing evil.

Good to know.

Is this kind of thinking—a concern about rights, legality and fairness driven only by cold-blooded calculations of costs, profits, detection and consequences— an aberration in the for-profit world, or is it the norm?

I’m afraid I might know the answer, and I don’t like it.

3 thoughts on “So Much For “Don’t Be Evil”: YouTube and Google Ethics on Display

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