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Google, Meet The One Institution More Powerful Than You

The media giant should pay the price for the corporate abuses enabled by its Pelagian culture of free choice.

(By Benny Marty/Shutterstock)

If you’re targeted for antitrust investigations by the U.S. Justice Department and 48 state attorneys general, you’re going to have a bad time. Recently, the Wall Street Journal reported that these investigations will likely lead to antitrust lawsuits, with the Justice Department’s lawsuit commencing as soon as this summer.

On a narrow level, these lawsuits deal with various antitrust laws, such as the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890. On a broader level, many are questioning whether big tech companies such as Google have become too powerful, especially when they recklessly abuse that power.

At the root of many Google’s problems, including its antitrust problems, lies a corrosive, Pelagian rot. In his speech, “The Age of Pelagius,” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) warns against a false philosophy of freedom, a “philosophy of liberation” rooted in “unrestricted, unfettered free choice.” As tempting as that philosophy may sound, it inevitably leads to societal decay. “But here is the irony,” he said. “Though the Pelagian vision celebrates the individual, it leads to hierarchy. Though it preaches merit, it produces elitism. Though it proclaims liberty, it destroys the life that makes liberty possible.”

Google may not be the government, but it does contain another powerful institution which people also like to complain about: management. Google’s founders may not be as wise as the Founding Fathers, but as part of their philosophy, they did figure out how to properly restrain the power of its managers, instituting Google’s own version of checks and balances.

The success of Google was built on those systems, but today, these systems have degraded into mere parchment barriers. In the new Google, a Pelagian freedom of choice has liberated many people, insofar as they can bypass those systems and even bypass the law.

I could certainly tell quite a few stories from my time there. In one of those stories, my manager chose to ignore the guidance of Google’s “Managing within the Law” training, and in retrospect, I couldn’t think of a better metaphor for so many of Google’s problems, problems which make my stories seem insignificant. They certainly seem to believe that acting with the law is an optional choice.

Google famously used to preach its motto of “don’t be evil,” but today, it has degraded into a Pelagian company where freedom of choice means that you can choose to be evil.

For example, Google can choose to pay an executive a $90 million exit package after a credible accusation of sexual misconduct. If someone sues Google for sexual misconduct, it can choose to bypass the public court system, using forced arbitration to funnel lawsuits into an alternative justice system stacked in its favor. (Though thankfully, the Google Walkout brought an end to that detestable practice.) Even after the Google Walkout, it can still choose to engage in blatant pregnancy discrimination and then arrogantly play hardball after it gets caught.

When Google built its mobile operating system, Android, it could choose to steal the Java API from Oracle, deploying its vast resources and crafty lawyers in order to legitimize its theft. (We can debate as a matter of policy whether the Java API should be copyrightable, but as a matter of law, the existing copyright law clearly covers the Java API.)

While at Google, I witnessed a number of conflicts. Some conflicts I was involved in, others I was not. Some conflicts were political, others were not. Nonetheless, a common theme emerged. In these conflicts, neither principles nor the truth nor even the law mattered. Only one thing mattered: power. And in a world where only power mattered, Google almost always won.

In this latest power struggle over antitrust law, though, Google finds itself going head-to-head against an institution even more powerful than itself: the government. Conservatives and libertarians have long debated the proper role of government and how its power should be limited, but at the very least, we need a government that can maintain law and order, especially when big tech companies choose to act as if they are above the law.

James Madison once said, “If Men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” If neither men nor those who govern men are angels, then certainly the big tech companies are not angels. While we must always be on guard against abuses of power by the government, we still need a government powerful enough to exorcise the demons of the tech industry.

Mike Wacker is a former software engineer for Google and one of the Lincoln Network’s 2020 Policy Hacker fellows.

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