Can’t be Evil: Businesses That Are Guaranteed to Keep Your Interests First

Google’s mantra started out as “Don’t be Evil”. A more generic version of this idea is the B-Corporation which explicitly prioritizes charitable goals on equal footing with shareholder value.

These companies are, however, the exceptions. While some companies probably want to make their users happy, that is rarely the primary motivation in the decision making process. Most companies have some form of requirement to maximize shareholder value. The resulting reality is that profit trumps the best interests of users.

The “Don’t be Evil” motto and B-Corporations are attempts to establish a system where the motivation behind decision-making is better aligned with the interests of the user base as opposed to those who are profiting from the user base. This model is also arguably more sustainable since it builds a mutually beneficial relationship as opposed to the somewhat parasitic relationship that can form when shareholders push for return on their investment.

But even Google has done questionable things during its tenure  on the web.  In 2006 Google agreed to block the websites the Chinese government deemed illegal in exchange for allowing their infrastructure to be installed on Chinese soil.  In a statement made by Google explaining this decision Google says the following.

“We believe that our current approach to China is consistent with this mantra (Don’t be Evil). Our hope is that our mix of measures, though far from our ideal, would accomplish more for Chinese citizens’ access to information than the alternative.”

I don’t claim that this is a black and white situation, nor that Google perpetrated a great evil.  Google has however been complicit in assisting the Chinese government’s censorship for an entire decade.  How can a company with the mantra “Don’t be Evil” do these things?  Because they are beholden to shareholders and it becomes a question of losing out on a 1.3 billion person market or complying with an authoritarian Government.

My recent work in the Ethereum ecosystem has uncovered a new model that goes beyond “Don’t be Evil.” I’ve started thinking of it as “Can’t be Evil.”  What if it was impossible to Google to censor its search results?  What if they couldn’t censor them even if they wanted to?

Code that runs on the Ethereum world computer is both immutable and verifiable. The immutable component comes from the fact that once code has been deployed to Ethereum it cannot be modified. The verifiable component means that someone can verify that an application running on Ethereum was created from a specific piece of source code. With these two components, it is possible to prove that an application does exactly what it claims to do.  Even further we can create applications that cannot do certain things like censorship.

Using Ethereum, we now have tools that are capable of creating apps that fundamentally cannot be censored.  Or a version of Facebook that cannot perform experiments on users by manipulating their feeds. Or a version of Skype that cannot open a backdoor for governments to spy on our communications.  These applications can be proven to behave in a manner that keeps the interests of the user first.

Science fiction is filled with dystopian technological futures.

  • Vast corporations that operate with near unlimited power.
  • A world with no privacy where your every move and communication is catalogued and recorded.
  • Where everywhere you look someone is trying to sell you something.
  • A world powered by your data which is silently extracted from your every action.

If any of this sounds familiar it’s because it’s the world we live in right now.

Corporations with unlimited power? Companies have been extremely successful in bending the world to their advantage. Most multimillion dollar companies are paying a lower percentage in taxes than you. Not a single Wall Street Executive has been convicted of criminal charges related to the 2008 banking crisis.

Pervasive monitoring? The NSA is building a data center in Utah capable of storing exabytes of data. To give this number some scale, if you represent a single byte as a grain of rice, then the NSA data center’s storage capacity in rice would be sufficient to cover the majority of North America in rice. Its also enough capacity to record all communications of everyone in America.

Ads Everywhere? The last time I checked, the internet is filled with advertising.

A world fueled by your data? Facebook purchased WhatsApp, a 55 person company for 19 billion dollars. What Facebook was actually buying was the data of the roughly 400 million WhatsApp users.

The only way any of this is going to change is a fundamental change in how we build the applications that power our lives. We need applications that give power to their users. Applications that can be proven to operate with your best interests in mind. We need incorruptible applications that “Can’t be Evil”.

For the first time in history, Ethereum makes this possible.  In the coming years your web browser will likely be packaged with the capability of communicating with the Ethereum world computer.  Once this is the case, using applications that are built using Ethereum is going to feel identical to the applications you use every day.  Ethereum applications will look and feel no different from the Andriod or iOS applications that you use every day.

Also published on Medium.