Google's corporate slogan – "Don't be evil" – has always bothered me. No one should "be" evil, of course. But why did Google need to spell out its determination to avoid Satan and all his works with such vehemence? When a husband declares to his wife that he would never dream of taking a mistress, or a chief executive interrupts a board meeting to announce that she isn't embezzling the company's funds, the audience is entitled to wonder if they're listening to the voice of a guilty conscience.
At present, hundreds of millions of people find the idea that Google could be evil unthinkable. It has so weaved itself into the fabric of everyday life that it has gone from being a proper noun to a verb: "I google"; "You google"; "The whole world googles". I doubt many users think of it as a business at all. The simple home page carries no adverts or PR puffs; it feels as much a public space as the street outside your door. When you reach the search results, Google does not call the adverts running down the side "adverts" but "sponsored links", as if it were a charity and philanthropists were helping further its noble endeavour.
To be fair, Google does have touches of nobility. It showed real guts when it stood up to the Chinese Communist party and refused to censor searches by Chinese users on the regime's behalf. But it remains a business, which exists by selling its users to its advertisers. Most on the net have yet to grasp that when they are on free sites – Facebook and Twitter as well as Google – they are not citizens enjoying a public service or customers whose wishes must always come first. They are the product whose presence the site owners sell to the real customers in advertising...