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Beyond that quantifiable success, Google has tried to be special, the company that won't give in to the dark side, be it censorship, greed or just plain jerkiness. It's hard to say exactly what "Don't be evil" means, and one could argue that that's the unwritten principle of every respectable corporation. But Brin and Page's ultimate vision--to make nearly all information accessible to everyone all the time--is a tricky thing, given that a lot of us (individuals, corporations, governments) aren't comfortable with a 100% free flow of data. Just last week Google was slammed for a software feature that results in the company's storing users' personal data for up to a month. At times like these, Google keeps that mantra handy--Don't be evil, don't be evil, don't be evil--as a reminder to try to do the right thing in a complex world. Which means turning down $80 million windfalls from time to time. Or telling U.S. prosecutors, as Google did last month, that it won't hand over data on people's Internet use.
That's why Google's decision to launch a censored website in China was so jarring. (See "Google Under the Gun," TIME, Feb. 13, 2006.) Doing a totalitarian government's bidding in blocking the truth in order to make a few extra bucks is practically the definition of evil. Google acknowledges that it's in a tough situation but says it ultimately has to obey local laws. "There's a subtext to 'Don't be evil,' and that is 'Don't be illegal,'" says Vint Cerf, an Internet founding father who now serves as "chief Internet evangelist" at Google. "Overall, having Google there is better than not having Google there." But at what cost? Can Brin and Page live with the idea that Chinese Netizens can't access anything other than the official line on, say, the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and that Google is part of the cover-up?
There's another big question that makes Brin and Page squirm: Does Google have a master plan? To outsiders, it sometimes seems as if the company is investing everywhere, trying to be everything, often giving its products away. A few of the newer pursuits: a proposal to provide free wireless Internet service for San Francisco; an online video store selling TV shows and NBA games; a classified-advertising site; a project to scan every book ever published and make the texts searchable; a free desktop package loaded with software; free instant messaging and online voice communication; a $1 billion investment in America Online. (AOL, like this magazine, is owned by Time Warner.) In the past year or so, Google Inc. has doubled in size to about 6,000 employees to handle all the new work. Even the bullish Rashtchy acknowledges that "Google is a black box for most people."