Google Brings “Don’t be evil” to Pentagon Contracts (Or does it?)

Google War

After a couple of months of slow-simmering and mostly internal debate over the morals of helping the Department of Defense become better at war, Google has announced that it won’t renew a Pentagon contract for military applications of artificial intelligence. As far as we know, this action is completely unprecedented in corporate history. Is there any hope that Google’s move signals a new corporate sensibility about war and profit?

Google had accepted a $9 million contract for artificial intelligence (AI) work under the suitably militaristic title “Project Maven” to boost drone surveillance techniques. Internal Google communications revealed by The Intercept suggest that Google expected this line of work to grow to more like $250 million per year – not necessarily all of which would have gone to Google.

In the scheme of Pentagon contracts, this is not even that big. On just one recent day chosen at random, new Pentagon contracts included: $866 million for maintaining and upgrading radar sensors to Northrop Grumman; $280 million for “tactical fighter jet aircraft flight operations” to Draken International; and $379 million to DLT Solutions for Oracle software licenses and support. A $250 million contract is just business as usual, and surely the Pentagon will have other takers.

Pentagon contracts are big business, but not as much so when it comes to the big picture at Google. The $250 million hoped-for award would represent less than one percent of Google’s approximate annual revenues. Google didn’t take much of a hit to their bottom line for making this stand, and the decision seemed to arise far more from the ongoing objections of lower-level employees than from any leadership inclination, neither of which suggests a very firm commitment to peace on Google’s part.

Still, compared to big-name military contractors like Lockheed Martin or Raytheon, who unashamedly ride the wave of higher stock prices whenever war seems imminent, Google's decision is a breath of fresh air.

Elsewhere, rumblings of “corporate responsibility” are growing, even though war-making still seems to be considered an acceptably responsible activity. One recent round-up of corporate social responsibility trends made no mention of corporate profiteering from war-making, indicating it’s still widely considered OK. And it’s been noted that Google’s unique culture made this move possible. It would seem that few, if any, other corporations have the kind of employee (or shareholder) culture that might demand higher standards when it comes to war profiteering.

The growing trend of divestment campaigns could make corporate calculations about social responsibility a bit more interesting. It’s not just for fossil fuels or Palestinian rights anymore – the divestment tactic is now arriving to challenge the weapons industry, too. Successful divestment campaigns can help motivate corporate responsibility the old-fashioned way: by threatening the bottom line. In theory, this is when real change can happen.

Without threats to profitability, commitments to social responsibility may be finicky things. Even Google’s own commitment to its decision is unclear. Is Google’s decision a cynical, and perhaps temporary, public relations move, or a real commitment to a more peaceful world? One disturbing sign: just as Google said it would renounce its Pentagon contract, it also quietly erased its former motto from the employee code of conduct.

The now-deleted motto? “Don’t be evil.”