Today the New York Times extensively documents the unethical business strategy used by the owner of a web-based eyewear business.
After making the discovery that Google does not distinguish between positive and negative mentions of a business on the Internet, he resolved to treat complaining customers as badly as possible to encourage complaints about his company on consumer sites. I do mean “as badly as possible”: the Times relates the accounts of customers who received insulting phone calls, threatening mail, and other harassing and bullying communications from the entrepreneur, who uses multiple aliases. The method works well: since on-line diatribes, complaints and bad reviews have piled up over his poor service, outrageous conduct and often shoddy merchandise, the man’s business is booming. Its name consistently nears the top of Google’s search results when a potential customer types the name of his or her favorite eyewear designer and “eyeglasses,” sometimes placing higher than the designer itself.
The Times interview with the owner reveals him to be devoid of ethical or moral bearings. His sole motivation is financial success, and he is willing to do or say anything, mistreat anyone, and violate any principle of fairness, honesty and decency if it can achieve his goals without landing him in jail. For him, so far, unethical conduct pays off handsomely. He could serve as Exhibit A in the case to show why the argument for good conduct taught in many schools, churches and families—that if you do the right thing you will be rewarded—does not necessarily produce an ethical approach to life, just a pragmatic one. Those who are so taught often discover that doing the wrong thing can have its rewards too, and we end up with Bernie Madoffs and Tom DeLays, who calculate that they can achieve riches or power by judiciously breaking rules, taking advantage of the inherent trust human beings have for each other, and perverting systems that only work well when they are used in good faith.
If someone has no conscience, like the eyewear salesman, then his response to the discovery that his search engine results will improve the more people complain about him on-line is natural and obvious: abuse more people. His answer to the objection, “But that’s wrong!” is “So what? It works.” Since ethics won’t influence him, the only alternative is to make sure that bad conduct stops being profitable. This means that Google shares in the responsibility for his abusive business practices, for its search formula is what makes them work so well.
The web giant now has an obligation to solve the flaw. Most entrepreneurs and business owners are not sociopaths, but there are plenty willing to abandon ethics when the potential rewards are significant enough. If Google allows unethical businesses to prosper by being more unethical, we will soon have more unethical businesses. In this situation, Google’s famous motto “Don’t be evil” dictates that the company must not allow evil to be a successful business strategy.
[ For the second time this month, Ethics Alarms is posting a story that withholds the identity of its subject. I apologize, but there is no other ethical course. Though this will make it less likely that our post will be found and read, at least it won’t help elevate this unethical business’s search results. You can learn the name of the company and its owner in the Times article, here.]