Julian Assange: “The Banality of ‘Don’t Be Evil’”

As I sit here working on a forthcoming article—Super-Intermediaries, Code, Human Rights—about powerful internet intermediaries and human rights, I was intrigued to come across Julian Assange’s op-ed in Saturday’s New York Times entitled The Banality of ‘Don’t Be Evil’.

Assange, the reclusive founder of WikiLeaks, has harsh words for Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, authors of the new book The New Digital Age. Schmidt, of course, is executive chairperson of Google, and Cohen is an author, a former advisor to Secretaries of State Rice and Clinton, and currently Director of Google Ideas.

Assange, pointing to this writing partnership as further evidence of the increased intertwining of governments and powerful internet companies, states in his characteristic polemic:

“THE New Digital Age” is a startlingly clear and provocative blueprint for technocratic imperialism, from two of its leading witch doctors, Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, who construct a new idiom for United States global power in the 21st century. This idiom reflects the ever closer union between the State Department and Silicon Valley, as personified by Mr. Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, and Mr. Cohen, a former adviser to Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton who is now director of Google Ideas.

Assange continues, attacking Google’s view of its own role in society:

“The New Digital Age” is, beyond anything else, an attempt by Google to position itself as America’s geopolitical visionary — the one company that can answer the question “Where should America go?” It is not surprising that a respectable cast of the world’s most famous warmongers has been trotted out to give its stamp of approval to this enticement to Western soft power. The acknowledgments give pride of place to Henry Kissinger, who along with Tony Blair and the former C.I.A. director Michael Hayden provided advance praise for the book.

Although Assange’s rhetoric is perhaps overheated, the concerns he raises are without a doubt real. Similar concerns are echoed by authors such as Rebecca MacKinnon in her excellent and accessible book Consent of the Networked. I agree with MacKinnon that one of the most important issues we face today is the emergence of extremely powerful corporate intermediaries and their ever-increasing power. As MacKinnon notes in her book (page xxiii), in the first half of the 20th century, corporations were confronted with employee safety and health concerns, and in the second, with the environmental movement. But today, “most Internet and telecommunications companies have failed to accept responsibility—beyond cyberutopian platitudes—for the rights of their customers and users.”

Similarly, my forthcoming article Super-Intermediaries, Code, Human Rights addresses the nature of “Super-Intermediaries” such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter, and assesses the role that international human rights law might provide in guiding powerful non-State internet actors. My core thesis is that powerful internet intermediaries have exceptional power, and as such, bear especial responsibilities to the public. (Or as Peter Parker’s uncle famously said, “With great power there must also come—great responsibility!”)

But responsibility to do what? Do good? Not do evil? These ideas of power, responsibility, and evil bring me back full-circle to Assange and his op-ed. His article’s title, The Banality of ‘Don’t Be Evil’, mocks Google’s unofficial motto, “Don’t Be Evil.” But ironically, as I point out in my draft article (not yet online), Google honcho Eric Schmidt, when asked what “Don’t Be Evil” meant, once replied: “Evil . . . is what [Google co-founder Sergey Brin] says is evil.”

Wow! This is a circular and empty definition: evil is what Google says it is. Such a definition is at the least extremely unsatisfying and at the worst baldly Orwellian.

But I honestly think that Google does not view itself as Orwellian. And in fairness, I know that many people in the company sincerely want to do good for the world. But accountability, transparency, and multi-stakeholder participation are crucial. Organizations like the Global Network Initiative (an organization that looks to some, but not all human-rights principles and includes some, but not all of today’s Super-Intermediaries) provide a good start. Also important are transparency reports such as those now provided by Google, Twitter, and Microsoft. So there are some promising developments. But more needs to be done to ensure that powerful Super-Intermediaries do good and are held accountable.

More thoughts to follow in the weeks ahead as I wrap up the article, which is forthcoming in the Intercultural Human Rights Law Review. I suspect that this article will be only the first of a number of papers on such matters.

Cross-posted to Infoglut Tumblr.

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