Ethics The Google Way Information Technology Essay

Google is a large corporation that is known for its excellent search engine and multitude of other applications designed to be used online. Google has investments in many data-mining fields, which are believed to help target audiences with site specific and user specific ads. DoubleClick, AdMob, and ITA are all recent acquisitions of Google. The primary method of income for each of these companies was obtaining user information and selling that information to advertisers like Google. Google received that user information from each of the companies it bought, and now has an extremely large database of personal data ( Privacy groups are decrying Google as an evil that will end private internet surfing once and for all. But what exactly is immoral about Google’s business practices? This paper will attempt to discover this through the use of various ethical lens.

The goal of a business is to turn a profit for its owners. Google is no exception: it makes its money off of advertisements it displays in over half of the web pages that the majority of people visit ( Google ads are harmless, text-based links that are much easier on the eye than pop-ups or flash ads. They even come without sound! Google’s ads are an archetypal example of the effort and usability that permeates everything that the search-engine creates. They put a lot of effort into creating excellent algorithms for their search-engine and their user interface in other Google products, and they deserve the income they generate with their ads.

To make money through advertisements, an internet-based company must produce ads that are clicked on by more users than any other ad out there. Google accomplishes this through “targeted advertisements” ( These are ads tailored to each individual person based on which sites they visit and what they peruse online. Getting information on users of Google’s ad services is key. Since the ads are public, the ads target everyone at once. This leads Google to require information on every user. Buying companies that already have this data is one way that data is gathered. Google purchased ITA for 700 million dollars, AdMob for 750 million dollars, and Doubleclick for 3.1 billion dollars (;; The focus of each of those companies was tracking user data and using that data to target ads to the users. With all this money spent on delivering better ads to customers, Google must have a large amount of data to work with.

In 2002, Doubleclick paid 1.8 million dollars in a settlement to multiple states over privacy issues ( Doubleclick was also ordered to divulge how they were gathering the data they obtained from users of their services. It was revealed they were using cookies to track users from website to website and using that data to gain ad revenue. Google is now the owner of Doubleclick, and with the transfer of power, all that data has been gifted to the new parent company ( Google is fairly open with how they obtain their data, with cookies and tracking of users’ IP addresses being an example, but they have not been very good at alerting their users to the existance of these cookies or to the extent of their data-mining per individual. Is this fair to the end users? Is this just good business? Making a broad generalization along the lines of “Google is good” or “Google is evil” would not be in the best interests of anyone involved. The best way to analyze a company for morality is to take a look at what actions they have taken. In this study Google’s profiting through advertisements, the buying out of competing businesses, use of targeted advertisements, and the gathering and storing of personal data are all considered relevant. Each of these four prevalent issues will be in its own section, and supported or rejected as moral through four different ethical lens. These lens will be Kantian, Utilitarianism, Social Contract Theory, and Ethical Egoism, as briefly explained in the following section.

2. Ethical Modals

Kantian ethics holds the intentions greater than the product of a person’s actions. Two formulations will be used, both derivations of the Categorical Imperative. For example, Google has the ability to release sensitive data to the public, at a profit if needs be. The first imperative would hold that if everyone released data in such a manner, there would be no reason to release data in the first place. Contradiction in this case means the action is immoral. The second holds that Google would be using those persons’ data as a means to an end, which is immoral.

Act and Rule Utilitarianism are two subsets of Utilitarianism, where the ends justify the means. If Google were to, say, release confidential medical data from its gmail data banks to the public for the sum of one-hundred billion dollars, and only a few persons were harmed for two-hundred million dollars each, Act Utilitarianism would describe this as an overall moral action. Rule Utilitarianism would disagree, stating that if a rule were created that everyone had the right to sell confidential data for a profit to the public, the value of those data would move so low as to make the unhappiness factor of those few persons larger than the profit gained. Act would return a moral action, Rule would return immoral.

Social Contract Theory states that in order to live in a peaceful, safe, and stable society individuals must relinquish certain personal freedoms. In this study, negative rights are those that can be guarenteed by inaction, such as the right to life, or more relevant, privacy. Google is able to look through any person’s Gmail account at any time. If they do, they would be denying that person’s right to privacy and violating their negative rights.

3. Advertisements

Google makes money off of advertisements it shows people when they browse Google’s websites. These ads are usually text-based and unintrusive. Google uses these ads to keep its search-engine running with thousands of people using it at any given second. Google has also made it easy for other website developers to add their ads to their site. Google pays the owner or owners of the site for displaying Google ads. Google, in turn, gets paid by the businesses or people that advertise using Google’s ad service. Is it immoral for Google to use ads to gather income in this way?

Using Kant’s first formulation, Google is making money off of ads. If everyone else made money this way, there would still be ads. For example, company A starts using a Google-like ad service where they provide simple Javascript tools to allow webmasters easy access to middle-man ad services. Company B and C also start doing the same. Company A wins the race, and gets more people to use their service. B and C fall out of the race, and A is left the lone ad service once again. There is no problem universalizing this rule.

Using Kant’s second formulation, Google is working with webmasters and businesses that wish to show their product to a diverse group of internet browsing people. This is not using them as a means to an end, but rather working with them to achieve an end. Under both formulations, Google’s advertisement model is moral.

Google, the webmasters, the businesses, and the web users are all happy under this system. The users do not have to look at flashy pop-ups or unclosable Javascript windows, they are able to peruse one or two lines of text for something that interests them. Under Act and Rule Utilitarianism, this is a moral model.

No negative rights are being violated here. The users accept ads as a logical and reasonable way to keep Google’s search-engine running, the webmasters see the ads as a good source of revenue and a way to keep their own websites running, and the businesses are happy to have their products in the public’s eye. Social Contract Theory sees this as moral.

Google running ads to keep their business profitable is a moral action. No model presented here states otherwise. What about Google buying out competing businesses? Is that moral?

4. Google, Plus Ad Companies

Just like any business entity, Google seeks to increase its productivity and assets. One way to accomplish great strides in this effort is to simply purchase the assets of another business. Combining personal and resources, a business is able to do much more than before. They also eliminate competition this way, thereby increasing the chance that they succeed in their endeavors to make a profit. Is this a moral action for Google to take?

There is no problem universalizing this rule. If a business has enough money and will to buy another, they will. There is a limiting factor of money. Google is not using these other businesses as a means to an end. They negotiated for a dollar amount how much the business was willing to sell its assets for. This is a moral action in a Kantian view.

Happiness factors include the value of the transaction for Google, for the company in question, the unhappiness generated from combining and firing redundant workers, and the overhead to make all that happen. Depending on how much each of those variables are valued, Act Utilitarianism may view this as moral or immoral. Universalized, there is likely a net positive happiness, as the options bankruptcy, leading to no jobs at all, or switching companies. Rule Utilitarianism holds that this is a moral action.

Both companies are wary of violating the other’s rights and transferring assets without breaking anti-trust laws. There are no other illegal dealings as far as this paper is concerned, and for that Social Contract Theory holds this to be moral.

The only model that this could be interpreted as immoral is under an Act Utilitarian view, and only under extreme circumstances. Overall, Google buying other companies is a moral action because it does not violate anti-trust laws and does so with the consent of the other company. When Google does acquire the assets previously held by the other companies, it puts to use their data on people’s buying and surfing habits. Google uses those data to target ads at internet users in the hopes of more frequent purchases of those products, thus increasing the money charged to the businesses using Google’s advertisement services. Is using data collected from people’s surfing habits a moral action? Does it interfere with their rights to privacy or happiness?

5. Google’s Targeted Audience

The amount of data that Google has is astounding. A 2006 estimate includes 220 terabytes for Google’s Analytics, a data-gathering service that places cookies on most of the more popular websites out there ( Google uses their vast data pools to target ads to specific internet users as they browse in real time. As one employee mentioned, “[W]hy not just watch where the people are surfing on the net, and then tailor the ads directly for them?” (qtd. in One of the more stunning examples of targeted advertisements that new users to Google’s Gmail service occurs when they read their first email. Google Ads are placed above and along the side of the message box on the same subject that is in the email. This also happens when a search term is placed in Google proper: a list of relevant ads appears to the side of the search terms. These are all meticulously calculated through algorithms derived from data that Google has and that targets every person using any Google product. Taking only the targeted advertisements into account, and ignoring for the moment how the data is procured, is Google doing evil? From this point on, it becomes harder to say with clarity whether or not an action taken by Google is moral. For this reason, each ethical model will be discussed more thoroughly.

Kantian formulation one gives the universalized use of advertisement in general described as, “In order to make money, businesses may recommend their product to a general audience.” This is conceivable, and treats each person as a consumer of a good. If everyone were to advertise to internet users without bias for individuals, the internet would continue to have advertisements and continue as normal. However, Google is targeting ads towards customers. When this action is universalized, it may become, “In order to make money through advertisement revenue, businesses may recommend their products to a specific individual that they think is more likely to buy their wares than the general internet populace based on that individual’s data.” This is less conceivable because it treats every person as a separate entity instead of an internet user looking to buy a product. If everyone were to target their advertisements to users based on a specific individual’s data, there would be no need for advertisements. It would become something similar to casual barter. Targeted advertisements, when universalized, produce a contradiction, and therefore are not moral.

The second formulation is much easier to describe. The targeted ads are always there when a user navigates a page that uses Google ads. There is no option to turn off the targeted portion of the ad. Each individual user certainly did not agree to be the target of ads that appear everywhere. Google’s method of making money does not take into account people that may have interests outside of what they search for or buy online. Google treats their users as a source of income, and not as users looking to purchase a good. This is an immoral action by either formulation of Kantian evaluation.

There are no other major effects of Google’s use of targeted advertisements online outside of the buying and selling of a product or service. Under a Utilitarian lens, therefore, the morality of targeting advertisements to specific users becomes simply a measure of how happy the majority of internet users are with that service. Because the service in question is not the product or service being sold, but the method in which they are sold, the problem further simplifies down to how happy the majority is with targeted ads in contrast to without ads. Act Utilitarianism must take into account only these two variables and rules in favor of the overall happiness associated with and without the ads. Targeted ads make shopping for a product less of a hassle, thus, without other considerations, are a moral action.

Rule Utilitarianism is much the same, but more definitive. If a rule stating, “All ads must be targeted to specific individuals” were created, it would be moral given the majority of internet users were happy with that service. Since ease of use implies a gain in happiness, a rule forcing this to status quo would increase overall happiness. Google’s targeted ads are a moral service.

Social Contract Theory, when applied to targeted advertising, looks to see if targeted advertisements will cause irreparable damage to the functioning of society. Targeted ads are not denying any negative rights of the users who view them. The data used in targeted ads could be viewed as a violation of privacy, but since data-gathering is not included in this section, targeted ads do not, in the present, violate the privacy of any person. There is no positive right associated with targeted ads, and based solely on the absence of breeches in negative rights, targeted advertisements are moral.

Based on the above evaluations, targeted advertising is moral with a small dissenting opinion from the Kantian evaluation. If targeted advertisements are not what privacy groups are concerned about, then it may be how the data used in targeted ads is gathered.

6. Google’s Cookie Jar

Data for targeted advertising is gathered in a myriad of ways, from moral to immoral The less debatable ways to morally gather data involve a company asking for information from a user for reasons stated to the user being questioned. These involve surveys, yes or no questions such as, “was this ad relevant to you?”, and optional fill-in data fields, such as Google’s profile page. Debatable techniques are the focus of this section, and include obtaining information without explicit consent. One such tool Google employs in this manner is the use of multiple-site spanning cookies ( These cookies tend to go unnoticed by the vast majority of the internet user-base. Is it moral to simply explain on a webpage how data is collected, or is it immoral without alerting the user to each time the data is being collected and how to opt-out of the service? This is what this final section will evaluate using the now familiar ethical models.

Google’s policy of using cookies to gather user information can be described as, “In order to increase ad revenue by providing relevant ads to individual users, Google may use discrete methods to track users over multiple sites as long as Google provides a web page describing how the tracking works.” Many users do not know this site exists, so the statement becomes, “In order to increase ad revenue by providing relevant ads to individual users, Google may use discrete methods to track users over multiple sites without that user’s knowledge.” If this statement is universalized, it becomes, “Every business, in order to increase ad revenue by providing relevant ads to individual users, may use discrete methods to track users over multiple sites without their knowledge.” If every business did this, and assuming every user were aware of this, users that felt it necessary would take precautions to avoid the tracking methods of the business involved. This defeats the original intent of the tracking method, namely to gather data, and it would become similar to asking the permission of the user, albeit in an extremely confusing manner. Kant’s first formulation therefore concludes that this is an immoral action.

Using Kant’s second formulation, Google is using internet users as a means to more accurately target ads towards them by tracking their habits without their explicit consent. Google representatives claim that by removing bits from IP adresses they are allowing others control because “users can control their cookies” (Metz). This opt-out strategy would be great, if everyone knew about the cookies that are added to their computers everytime they visit a site with Google’s suite of cookies. This formulation rules Google’s cookies as immoral ways to gather data because the ability to negotiate with the users is completly ruled out.

Utilitarianism takes a slightly different view on the morality of the user tracking that Google employs. By inferring the ease of use that targeted ads give users as the end product of data collection, the cookies used are still a positive action. Taking into account the unhappiness that users experience as a result of being constantly monitored, and the unhappiness generated when users are forced to find ways around Google’s cookies, the morality becomes debatable. Depending on how these values are weighted, Act Utilitarianism could lean either way in judging this a moral action.

Rule Utilitarianism applies the above to a rule, stated as, “Everyone is able to discretely monitor users during their escapades on the internet.” If everyone were allowed to monitor everyone else while on the internet, actions such as the purchase of goods and services through the internet would not take place. Paranoia and fear would keep people from sending sensitive data from being monitored. This all leads to a net decrease in happiness, and is an immoral action for Google to take.

Google is violating many negative rights in this example. Cookies are extremely invasive, revealing a person’s habits and likes or dislikes. By using cookies to monitor every computer without protection, Google is stating that it is up to the uninformed users to safeguard against the actions preformed by the former party. This is indeed giving a positive right to the users, the right to activly seek out privacy, but it still takes away a negative right, which leads to an immoral result from Social Contract Theory.

Under all models except Act Utilitarianism Google’s use of unauthorized cookies across multiple websites to monitor users is considered immoral. The overall evaluation is that it is immoral to use cookies without the consent of the users who obtain them. If Google were to require a contract agreement or a link to their webpage describing what the cookies are and how to remove them, most ethical models would change. Withholding the information was the biggest factor in this last evaluation.

7. Conclusion

Overall, Google is completing business morally. A few policies of theirs use people for the procurement of data, and while most of their practices are good, this last part is what could be considered evil. Privacy groups should be concerned about how data is obtained for targeted advertisements instead of the ads themselves. If Google were more open about its dealings with information collection and use, there would not be an issue at all.

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Sept. 2006. Web. 15 Apr. 2011.


Kincaid, Jason. “Google Acquires AdMob For $750 Million.” TechCrunch. 09 Nov. 2009. Web.

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Metz, Cade. “Google Tracking Cookie Spans AdSense, DoubleClick • The Register.” The

Register: Sci/Tech News for the World. 6 June 2009. Web. 19 Mar. 2011.


Metz, Cade. “Google’s IP Anonymization Fails to Anonymize • The Register.” The Register:

Sci/Tech News for the World. 12 Sept. 2008. Web. 19 Mar. 2011.


“Privacy Groups Eye DoubleClick.” 02 Feb. 2000. Web. 19 Mar. 2011.


Rendleman, John. “DoubleClick Settles Lawsuit, But Still Can Track Web Surfers —

InformationWeek.” InformationWeek | Business Technology News, Reviews and

Blogs. 26 Aug. 2002. Web. 19 Mar. 2011.


Robinson, Justin. “Google Ads Are Watching You – Security – Build – News – Atomic MPC.”

Tech, Games and Culture, by Geeks, for Geeks – Atomic MPC. 12 Mar. 2009.

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Story, Louise, and Miguel Helft. “Google Buys DoubleClick for $3.1 Billion.” Google Buys

DoubleClick for $3.1 Billion – New York Times. New York Times, 14 Apr. 2007.

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Writers, Staff. “Google’s $700 Million ITA Buy Cleared With Conditions | Inside Google.”

Inside Google | A Consumer Watchdog Investigation. 09 Apr. 2011. Web. 15 Apr.



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