Google, China And Zappos: How Integrity Colors Our Online World

Just under a year ago, Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos, wrote a blog post describing how Twitter has made him a better (and happier) person. In it, he poses the following question: "What would you do differently if there were a permanent public record of what you do or say?"


Fact is, there is a permanent public record of what you do or say -- online, at least. And, thanks to deals between the major social platforms and the major search engines, that permanent public record is pretty well accessible to anyone. And what it's meant is a greater necessity for people and businesses to display integrity.

Ah, integrity. A much-misunderstood, oft-misused word, from the Latin "integritas," meaning "soundness" or "wholeness." Note, however, what it doesn't mean. It doesn't mean "kind," "happy," "generous," or "spiritual." According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, that added qualifier -- that being sound or whole implies being of uncorrupted virtue -- didn't come into play until 1548, nearly a century after the word first made its appearance.



Integrity may well be the single most important characteristic online. If you are making the world a better place, you'd better live up to the brand promise. If you are a snarky gossiper, be so wholeheartedly, unabashedly, and utterly consistently. If you're Virgin Mobile, be irreverent. The Internet doesn't punish meanness or smallmindedness; it punishes a lack of integrity.

Consider, for example, SIGG's BPA controversy. The maker of "eco" water bottles faced consumer wrath last August when it came to light that not only did their bottles contain Bisphenol A (BPA), but the company knew about it for two years and kept it quiet.

If, for example, SIGG hadn't known; took proactive steps to make the information public as soon as its principals became aware of it; took the old product off the shelves and offered a sensible replacement policy for formerly proud owners of BPA-tainted bottles -- it still would have been a rough time for the company, but better than what actually happened. All you have to do is Google "SIGG BPA" and you'll see that what bothers people is not the BPA, but the fact that the promise was a lie. "SIGG BPA letdown," "SIGG BPA-Liner Apology Too Little Too Late," "SIGG Bottles Now BPA Free. But What Were They Before?" In the end, it comes down to integrity: the actions of the company were inconsistent with the brand identity it was putting out there.

In China, Google is at an integrity crossroads. Its official post, detailing suspicions about government-sponsored hackers, reads like a company trying to take the high road: "We launched in January 2006 in the belief that the benefits of increased access to information for people in China and a more open Internet outweighed our discomfort in agreeing to censor some results... These attacks and the surveillance they have uncovered -- combined with the attempts over the past year to further limit free speech on the web -- have led us to conclude that we should review the feasibility of our business operations in China."

Google's announcement was greeted with some applause and a not-insignificant dose of cynicism. Ad Age called it a face-saving way for Google to get out of a market it wasn't winning in anyway. And TechCrunch's Sarah Lacy says the stance is more about business than thwarting evil.

Following that opening salvo (or at least the salvo that was open to the public), Bloomberg is reporting that Google is in talks with the Chinese government. So the situation is going to play out in one of three ways: Google backs down, China backs down, or Google bows out.

Be careful, Google. Think of your integrity. Who have you claimed to be? Who are you, really? And which action would be the most consistent expression of your ideals?

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this topic, in the comments below or on Twitter via @kcolbin.

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