“Don't be evil,” Google's two founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, famously proclaimed in the manifesto they published just before their company went public, in 2004. Avoiding evil suggested a pretty low bar, but the vow itself — along with the founders' boast that “our business practices are beyond reproach” — was an invitation to find contrary examples. There have been plenty of nominations, including the announcement, in 2012, that Google would track its customers' Gmail missives, Web searches, and YouTube usage, which had the effect of helping advertisers target potential customers. (One headline proclaimed, “Google's Broken Promise: The End of 'Don't Be Evil.' ”)
Google still scans e-mail and tracks Web searches. This is, in fact, its business model — your Gmail account and search cost no money; you pay for it by letting people advertise to you based on keywords used in searches and e-mails. Among the company's more profitable advertisers over the years have been payday lenders, those outfits that make short-term loans — often for a period of just two weeks — at exceedingly high interest rates, usually to people so desperate for quick cash that they agree to scurrilous terms and so poor that they are unable to pay back the loan when it comes due.
- Ninety per cent of the complaints about payday lenders to the Better Business Bureau were about online lenders.