Google's classic "don't be evil" mantra may have been more of a philosophical statement than a practical guideline, but former staff members now want to hold the company accountable for it. NPR and The Verge say ex-engineers Paul Duke, Rebecca Rivers and Sophie Waldman have sued Google for allegedly violating the "don't be evil" segment of the company's code of conduct. They claim Google fired them for organizing worker opposition to controversial projects, like working with the Trump-era Customs and Border Protection. They were supposedly punished for pointing out evil like Google as instructed, in other words.
The one-time employees claimed Google rejected the famous phrase as it was both expensive and leading workers to organize. The internet firm supposedly decided it was better to fire people than admit its approach had changed and give up the "accompanying benefits" that came with its well-known motto.
There are concerns the lawsuit is too vague. What defines evil, exactly? However, plaintiff lawyer Laurie Burgess argued "don't be evil" was specific enough that it could be enforceable. The saying "must have meaning" if it was in the company code and thus binding, Burgess said.
We've asked Google for comment. It has previously accused all of the workers (plus Laurence Berland) of repeatedly violating data security policies by obtaining or sharing confidential data, but the workers and other critics have said this was just a cover for retaliatory action.
The lawsuit won't necessarily lead to stiff penalties. Google settled with Berland over his departure, for instance. There's a lot of pressure on Google to avoid a drawn-out legal battle when the National Labor Relations Board is still investigating the other firings. Still, this could be an important case — even if there is a settlement, it might open the door to other complaints about the company's ethical standards.