Why “evil” is the most over-used word in tech

One of the things which you often hear reading tech blogs, and particularly the comments, is that such-and-such a company is “evil”. What this usually means isn’t that they’re deliberately employing children or forcing workers to work in polluted factories which damage their health.

Instead, the cry of “evil” is used to describe companies that are trying to maximise their profits. That could be by destroying a market by giving away products to undercut competitors. It could mean locking customers in to platform so they face barriers if they want to switch to something else. Or it could mean trying to take a slice of income off every transaction made on their products.

This is a fundamental error, and it misunderstands what companies are designed to do. In a post on his blog, BBC business editor Robert Peston sums this up in relation to multinationals trying to minimise how much tax they pay:

“But given that company law obliges company directors to give greatest weight to the interests of their shareholders, criticising company boards for striving to minimise tax is a bit like attacking gravity for making the rain fall down rather than rise up.”

The same is true of tech companies. Apple isn’t “evil” because it is attempting to squeeze money out of publishers. Microsoft wasn’t evil when it tried to tie Office and Windows. Google isn’t evil because of its practice of giving away stuff which its competitors make money on.

They’re all just companies, trying to make the best returns for the only people that matter, legally, to them: The shareholders.

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  • http://twitter.com/JamesWallis James Wallis

    Shareholders are evil!

  • Anonymous

    I don’t like the word ‘evil’ either. But what about ‘unethical’? You’ve said that they’re not acting illegally, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not unfair. And describing what *is* shouldn’t preclude people from having an opinion on what *ought to be*.
    The danger with an argument like this is that it reinforces the idea that as long as it’s ‘legal’, any business practice, however unfair and unethical, is entirely OK. It’s the same argument that enables politicians to turn a blind eye and companies to continue pretending that they don’t, or oughtn’t to, show any responsibility toward the societies within which they exist.