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Saturday, January 26, 2013

Darling companies make tasty targets for evildoers

I've been thinking about the whole "evil" label as used here in the valley, and what it really means in practice. Some companies claim to care a lot about such things and say they're doing something about it. Other companies don't care at all, since whether they get labeled one way or the other doesn't matter to them. Still another set of companies may actually prefer being evil, since that's just what they're here to do. Maybe they like destroying the environment or causing emotional harm to other people. There are some nasty web sites which exist solely to post compromising pictures of your ex, for instance.

Let's assume for the purpose of this discussion that there are three groups: the "we're not evil" group, the "we don't care" group, and the "we are evil" group. There may be still other possibilities, but let's not get mired in exhausting the problem space. Just three will be plenty.

Imagine a particularly nasty act done by a company which is in one of those three sets. You don't know which set it is in, but you know the act was something you personally do not appreciate. In your value system, it rates "evil".

Now think about the branding of these companies. If one of the "we are evil" companies did this act, you'd just think "oh, yeah, that's what they do". You already know that they're a problem, and so you've already been steering your business away from them. You've done your part.

Or, what if it was a "we don't care" group? You might not have known about them either way, and may have been funding their efforts without realizing it. This might affect how you treat them in the future, but what's done is done. You just wish it hadn't worked out that way.

Now we get to the third group. You find out it was one of the "we're not evil" companies. Here's where things change. Due to their long-term marketing and identity in this space, do you even believe it? It's like hearing that the sweetest person you know is actually an axe-wielding murdering maniac in his spare time. I don't think you'd take it seriously unless you saw it happen with your own eyes.

Here's why I'm talking about this. Maybe you are an individual who wants to commit evil deeds. You could join EvilCorp and get into the groove with them. Trouble is, EvilCorp tends to be hated by consumers and governments alike. They run into all sorts of rules and restrictions aimed at keeping their impact as minimal as possible. Think of the "drug war" in the US, for instance. Lots and lots of money goes into pushing back against those enterprises. It's hard to really go far with so many people actively working against you.

A truly crafty evil individual might want to play the long game. They could get a job in a "not evil" company and start making changes from within. They could start making the kinds of decisions which ultimately lead to the sort of nasty behavior this individual wants to do. If they're smart about it, they can do it relatively slowly and hardly anyone may notice what's going on. Nobody's pushing back since they don't see any reason to oppose those efforts.

What's more, since they are hidden inside this juggernaut of good feelings and years of positive branding, their evil actions may go undetected or may simply be discounted as anomalies. After all, this is one of the good places! They wouldn't do that on purpose.

The error here is assuming that any company's "alignment" is static. I would argue that it is not, and is in fact subject to the whims of whatever forces are driving it.

My final piece about this is why this might matter. If you assume that people exist who want to do nefarious things, and you further assume they are smart enough to look for places which provide "cover" as described above, you might then conclude that the "not evil" set of companies are at greater risk of attracting the wrong kind of people. All of that wonderful branding and momentum must be awfully attractive to those who just want to exploit it for their own twisted purposes.

If you're running or working at such a noble institution, you have to be more vigilant than an average place since you can become a vector for great atrocities. It may sound like a bad sci-fi movie premise, but I think there is something to this.

If your resources or reputation could be used to harm people, you owe it to them to jealously guard it lest it fall into the wrong hands.

Otherwise, what's the point of trying to be good?