Imagine wandering through Times Square and seeing a 60-foot-tall animation depicting you (yes, you) as a creepy child-baiting ice cream truck driver. How would you feel? That's probably the question Google's Eric Schmidt is being asked today.
A group calling itself Consumer Watchdog, which has decided that Google is evil incorporated, has taken the unusual step of buying up space on NYC's Jumbotron and commissioning a 15-second cartoon that paints Eric Schmidt as a data pederast.
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But that's just the beginning. The Watchdogs have also produced a 90-second version that's available on Schmidt's own YouTube (cue ironic theme music here).
Normally I have no problem skewering rich corporate CEOs whose companies operate as if they can barely tolerate being in the same room as their customers. But I'm not sure Google exactly fits into that category.
Yes, Google has plenty of privacy screwups to be sorry for: the Buzz debacle, in which its Twitter-like update service began by broadcasting which Gmail users were in contact with each other most often (potentially revealing relationships that were intended to be private); the Wi-Fi spying scandal, where Google's Street View camera vans were found to be slurping up data from unprotected Wi-Fi networks around the world; the company's insistence on clinging to its users' search data for years (now reduced to 9 months) without ever asking permission or explaining why.
Google's apparent capitulation to the telecom industry on Net neutrality isn't helping its reputation, either.
But Consumer Watchdog is mostly picking on Schmidt because a) he's become the most visible symbol of Google, given how much Sergey and Larry lurk in the shadows, and b) he's made a few public statements lately that could chill a nuclear furnace.
Like this, for example, from a recent Wall Street Journal profile:
"We're trying to figure out what the future of search is," Mr. Schmidt acknowledges. "I mean that in a positive way. We're still happy to be in search, believe me. But one idea is that more and more searches are done on your behalf without you needing to type."
"I actually think most people don't want Google to answer their questions," he elaborates. "They want Google to tell them what they should be doing next."
I believe when Schmidt says these kinds of things he's performing a public service. I think he sees the good in information sharing (both for consumers and for Google) as well as the potential dangers, and he's trying to wake people up to that reality. He's just doing it in a ham-fisted way. The notion of having Google tell you what to do because it knows better is bound to get under anyone's skin.
I think Google's primary problem is not evilness, it's cluelessness. It's an engineering-driven company that thinks it's helping people by exposing their information, or that it's cool to be able to slurp up data as you drive by, so why not? I think the Googlers were genuinely surprised by the reaction to Buzz and authentically appalled when they confirmed their own Wi-Fi spying. And I think they are slowly wrapping their enormous Googley brains around the concept that just because they can collect all that data doesn't make it theirs to do with it as they wish. (One can hope, anyway.)
But Consumer Watchdog (formerly The Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights) has an animus toward Google that feels almost personal in nature. At least once a week I get an email blast from them attacking Google for some crime against humanity that's long on rhetoric and short on specifics.
I suspect that Times Square billboard succeeded beyond Consumer Watch's wildest dreams as a means of getting attention. But in terms of establishing credibility -- or focusing attention on what needs to change in order to ensure consumers' right to personal privacy -- it fails miserably.
So what do you think: Is Google evil, clueless, or some combination of both? E-mail me: firstname.lastname@example.org.