Future Tense

Google Is Moving Away From Its Original Mission Statement

“So, wait, we could be a little bit evil?”

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Google is known for search. Gmail and search. Android, Gmail, and search. OK, a lot of things. But one of its best-known attributes is the company motto “Don’t be evil.” On Friday, though, Google co-founder and CEO Larry Page told the Financial Times that another company saying, its official mission statement, may change.*

The mission statement from 1998 is “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” When asked whether the company needs a new mission statement, Page said, “I think we do, probably … [but] we’re still trying to work that out.” He also said, “The societal goal is our primary goal … We’ve always tried to say that with Google. I think we’ve not succeeded as much as we’d like.”

In the interview Page talks about how Google is an unusual source of funding for innovative research—at Google[X] and elsewhere—because it can afford to give smart people millions of dollars just to mess around with interesting ideas, not to mention giving support for promising results. Meanwhile the company makes the money—$16.5 billion just last quarter—from advertising to millions of users who may view Google and the open Internet as synonymous because the company is so ubiquitous.

“We’re in a bit of uncharted territory,” Page told the Times. “We’re trying to figure it out. How do we use all these resources … and have a much more positive impact on the world?”

But “don’t be evil” is a lot catchier, and it’s the motto everyone knows. It would be significant if Google ever ditched it as the company moves forward with its goals of advancing technology and attempting to solve big societal problems.* Based on its interview with Page, the Times article characterizes “don’t be evil” as seeming “quaint,” and says it stems from the company’s idealistic origins. But there’s nothing simple or unsophisticated about the phrase. It’s a bold mandate, one other big companies haven’t had the guts to operate under, not because it’s reductive, but because they worry that they can’t live up to it.

The phrase is so straightforward that if Google ever moved away from it, it would be a tacit acknowledgement that it can’t be achieved, even if that is not what Google intends, and even if it’s not the mature company’s fault that its startup progenitor (perhaps foolishly) laid out such a staggeringly direct mission. “Don’t be evil” is one of the best things about Google, simultaneously representing the important idea that a company not take itself too seriously, and an acknowledgement of the potentially corrupting power that Google strove to acquire.

Disclosure: Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University; Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt is chairman of the New America Board of Directors.

*Correction, Nov. 3, 2014: This post originally misstated that Larry Page said that “don’t be evil” was being removed as Google’s motto. Page did not address Google’s motto; he said that Google may evolve its mission statement.

Update, Nov. 3, 2014, 6:45 p.m.: Financial Times reporter Richard Waters tweeted to clarify that Page was not talking about “don’t be evil” when he said that the Google mission statement needed to be updated. “Don’t be evil” lives on.