I totally understand the worry, but I’m not sure I agree.
Companies already spend huge amounts of money lobbying for economic benefits, and those economic benefits can easily cause harm to others. Corporations are often given a sort of “free pass” on this because they are not perceived as moral agents (not by everybody, but by many people). They’re not always considered immoral, just amoral; anything they do within the law to further their business goals is considered sort of ok, or at least not personally objectionable.
This lack of moral agency is (in my opinion), the cause of a lot of modern alienation and distrust. For example, in the many threads we’ve had about the mortgage crisis and the ethics of walking away from a mortgage when you are capable of paying it, I see the central disconnect as being one of moral agency. Many people don’t feel the same way about failing to a debt to a large corporation as they do about failing to pay one to an individual, and the reason is that the person is a moral agent and the company isn’t. Another example: people gleefully download movies made by large film studios, but rally around Matthew Inman when a website steals his comics.
I’d actually prefer that we start thinking of and treating corporate entities as moral agents. It’s very unlikely that we’re going to put the corporate genie back in the bottle; we’re going to live with a future of powerful corporate entities. I’d rather live in a world where corporations have moral and ethical obligations above and beyond the legally required than one where corporations are strictly profit-driven and we have essentially let the most powerful entities completely abdicate morality. The former is one where we have powerful conglomerates that can accomplish big things, but they are tempered and directed by our humanity. The latter is a oligarchic dystopia.
There are plenty of things Google’s done that I’m not happy about. But this isn’t one of them. I’m going to celebrate their principled stand and hope that this trend continues.