On Friday, Alphabet officially became the parent of Google but left out an iconic sentence that defined the public image Google sought to project for itself, over a decade. 'Don't Be Evil,' the three words that Google has been using as an opener to its code of conduct since 2004, doesn't find mention in the newly-formed Alphabet's version of its ethical stance.
The elemental holding company's code opens with "Employees of Alphabet and its subsidiaries and controlled affiliates (“Alphabet”) should do the right thing – follow the law, act honourably, and treat each other with respect..."
In itself, there's little practical change that it brings about as, the Washington Post observes,
The vast majority of Alphabet employees will still be Google employees, part of the core search-and-advertising unit that is the new holding company’s biggest division. Those workers are still covered by Google’s code of conduct and the “Don’t be evil” motto.
However, the change does show how the re-organization could let new businesses develop their own cultures, separate from Google.
While there's been myriad criticism over the years about Google failing to live up to the loftiness of its logo in terms of its tax practices or invasion of privacy, the company's 'Don't Be Evil' credo was put to its toughest test in China.
Five years ago, Google broadly exited its search-and-mail operations in China after refusing to continue self-censoring its search results. Since then, it has maintained a limited presence in the world's biggest Internet market, but most of its services, including Play, are only nominally accessible. Implicit in Google's decision to exit was the reprehensibility inherent in compromising search quality to adhere to governmental norms and thus, a violation of 'Don't be evil.'
This, however, is 2015. Reuters reports that Google's exit has meant that several local Chinese companies now dominate the space that Google lords over in several other counties. Internet giants Baidu, Tencent, Alibaba and Qihoo 360 have all built their own products and services to replace or even surpass, Google's offerings.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai has stated that he wants to get back into China via Google Play, which, though available in China, reaches only 21 million of an estimated 800 million Chinese mobile users. The primary app stores of Chinese Internet giants Qihoo, Tencent and Baidu, account for two thirds of the market. Earlier this year Pichai told Forbes that China's user-base was irresistibly huge and was always on the company's radar.
"I don’t think of China as a black hole. I see it as a huge opportunity in which we are playing as an enabling platform today and hopefully we have a chance to offer other services in the future," the recently-appointed Google CEO said. The Economist points out that Pichai's inclination might be nudged over simply by having to "...returning to a country that is no more virtuous than when it left..."
Alphabet then--at least potentially--proffers a way out because it is theoretically possible for subsidiaries of Alphabet to interpret the parent company's credo in their own way. Take for instance Nest, a separate company that has tried hard to maintain an arms-length from Google over privacy concerns.
Nest, being an Internet-of-Things application, records a view of your room, stores recordings of it upto a month and analyses information about it that can be used for its own purposes and improving user experience. Now with an identity independent of Google, but within Alphabet, it can interpret 'evil' different from Google given that it is only obliged to 'respect the law, act honourably..."
In most cases, not being evil and being honourable are coincident, but going ahead, if being honourable means being ever more answerable to investors and shareholder expectations then the lines could blur.
Just over a decade ago, Alphabet Executive Chairman, Eric Schmidt told the Wired magazine that “Evil is what Sergey [Brin] says is evil.”