If you want an understanding of my general philosophy on business and economics, it's that companies should focus on serving their customers better. That's it. It's a very customer-centric view of capitalism. I think companies that screw over their customers and users will have it come back to bite them, and thus it's a better strategy for everyone
if companies focus on providing good products and services to consumers, without screwing them over. And, I'm super supportive of organizations that focus on holding companies' feet to the fire when they fail to live up to that promise. Consumerist (owned by Consumer Reports) is really fantastic at this kind of thing, for example. Consumer Watchdog, on the other hand, despite its name, appears to have very little to do with actually protecting consumers' interests. Instead, it seems like some crazy people who absolutely hate Google, and pretend that they're "protecting" consumers from Google by attacking the company at every opportunity. If Consumer Watchdog actually had relevant points, that might be useful, but nearly every attack on Google is so ridiculous that all it does is make Consumer Watchdog look like a complete joke and undermine whatever credibility the organization might have.
In the past, we've covered an anti-Google video that company put out that contained so many factual errors
that it was a complete joke (and was later revealed as nothing more than a stunt to sell some books). Then there was the attempt to argue that Gmail was an illegal wiretap
. It's hard to take the organization seriously when it does that kind of thing.
Its latest, however, takes the crazy to new levels. John Simpson, Consumer Watchdog's resident "old man yells at cloud" impersonator, recently filed a complaint with the FTC against Google
. In it, he not only argues that Google should offer the "Right to be Forgotten" in the US, but says that the failure to do that is an "unfair and deceptive practice."
As you know by now, since an EU court ruling last year, Google has been forced to enable a right to be forgotten
in the EU, in which it will "delink" certain results from the searches on certain names, if the people argue that the links are no longer "relevant." Some in the EU have been pressing
Google to make that "right to be forgotten" global -- which Google refuses
to do, noting that it would violate the First Amendment in the US and would allow the most restrictive, anti-free speech regime in the world to censor the global internet.
But, apparently John Simpson likes
censorship and supporting free speech-destroying regimes. Because he argues Google must
allow such censorship in the US. How could Google's refusal to implement "right to be forgotten" possibly be "deceptive"? Well, in Simpson's world, it's because Google presents itself as "being deeply committed to privacy" but then doesn't abide by a global right to be forgotten. Really.
“The Internet giant aggressively and repeatedly holds itself out to users as being deeply committed to privacy. Without a doubt requesting the removal of a search engine link from one’s name to irrelevant data under the Right To Be Forgotten (or Right to Relevancy) is an important privacy option,” Consumer Watchdog’s complaint said. “Though Google claims it is concerned about users’ privacy, it does not offer U.S. users the ability to make such a basic request. Describing yourself as championing users’ privacy and not offering a key privacy tool – indeed one offered all across Europe – is deceptive behavior.”
That's, uh, not how this all works. In his complaint to the FTC, Simpson's theory is laid out in all its kooky nuttiness. Basically, because in the past we didn't have technology, and things would get forgotten thanks to obscurity -- and because Google claims to support privacy, it must magically pretend that we still live in such an age, and agree to forget stuff people want it to forget. He'd also, apparently, like Google to get off his lawn.
Here is why the Right To Be Forgotten – or Right of Relevancy – is so important to
protecting consumers’ privacy in the digital age: Before the Internet if someone did something
foolish when they were young – and most of us probably did – there might well be a public
record of what happened. Over time, as they aged, people tended to forget whatever
embarrassing things someone did in their youth. They would be judged mostly based on their
current circumstances, not on information no longer relevant. If someone else were highly
motivated, they could go back into paper files and folders and dig up a person’s past. Usually
this required effort and motivation. For a reporter, for instance, this sort of deep digging was
routine with, say, candidates for public office, not for Joe Blow citizen. This reality that our
youthful indiscretions and embarrassments and other matters no longer relevant slipped from the
general public’s consciousness is Privacy By Obscurity. The Digital Age has ended that.
Everything – all our digital footprints – are instantly available with a few clicks on a computer or
taps on a mobile device.
Google’s anti-consumer behavior around privacy issues is deceptive. The Internet giant
holds itself out to be committed to users’ privacy, but does not honor requests that provide a key
privacy protection. Google explains: “We know security and privacy are important to you – and
they are important to us, too. We make it a priority to provide strong security and give you
confidence that your information is safe and accessible when you need it. We’re constantly
working to ensure strong security, protect your privacy, and make Google even more effective
and efficient for you.” Recently Google said, “Protecting the privacy and security of our
customers’ information is a top priority, and we take compliance very seriously.” In its Privacy
& Terms Technologies and Principles Google claims, “We comply with privacy laws, and
additionally work internally and with regulators and industry partners to develop and implement
strong privacy standards… People have different privacy concerns and needs. To best serve the
full range of our users, Google strives to offer them meaningful and fine-gained choices over the
use of their personal information.”
In other words the Internet giant aggressively and repeatedly holds itself out to users as
being deeply committed to privacy. Without a doubt requesting the removal of a search engine
link from one’s name to irrelevant data under the Right To Be Forgotten (or Right to Relevancy)
is an important privacy option. Though Google claims it is concerned about users’ privacy, it
does not offer U.S. users the ability to make this basic request. Describing yourself as
championing users’ privacy while not offering a key privacy tool – indeed one offered all across
Europe – is deceptive behavior.
This is an absolutely insane interpretation of "deceptive." A company that supports user privacy is not being deceptive
just because its definition of privacy doesn't match your crazy definition
. It's just a different policy. If Google had flat out said that it would support a "right to be forgotten" in the US and then refused to process any requests, that
would be deceptive. But accurately stating what the company does is not deceptive, no matter what Simpson seems to think.
What about the "unfair" part of "unfair and deceptive"? I honestly can't summarize the logic because there is none. Apparently, some people might not like what searches on their name turn up, and that's bad and thus... unfair?
Not offering Americans a basic privacy tool, while providing it to millions of users across
Europe, is also an unfair practice. Acts or practices by a business are unfair under Section 5 of
the Federal Trade Commission Act if they cause or are likely to cause substantial injury to
consumers that consumers cannot reasonably avoid themselves and that is not outweighed by
countervailing benefits to consumers or competition.6 Here are some examples of people who
have been harmed by Google’s refusal to honor Right of Relevancy or Right To Be Forgotten
removal requests in the United States. Clearly there is no countervailing benefit in continuing to
link to the items from search results. Consider these examples:
- A young California woman was decapitated in a tragic auto accident. Photos from the
grisly accident scene were wrongfully leaked by California Highway Patrol officers and
posted to the Internet. A search on her name still returns the horrible photographs.
- A guidance counselor was fired in 2012 after modeling photos from 20 years prior
surfaced. She was a lingerie model between the ages of 18-20, and she had disclosed her
prior career when she first was hired. Despite this, when a photo was found online and
shown to the principal of her school, she was fired.
I don't see how any of this is "protecting consumers." It's seems quite the opposite, actually. It seems to be assuming that the public is made up of pure idiots who can't ever figure out context or understand that sometimes bad things happen. But that's not true. People learn and adapt and adjust to new technologies, even as people like John Simpson fear them. When cameras first started becoming popular they were banned from beaches because people might take photographs of other people there. But people grew up and realized that wasn't destroying anyone's privacy. Simpson has this weird infatuation not with protecting consumers, but with censoring the internet to keep the public from knowing factual information, because apparently he thinks the public can't handle it.
Last week, on On The Media, host Bob Garfield pointed out to Simpson how ridiculous all of this was, and Simpson doesn't have a single reasonable response
. Garfield points out that public information, even embarrassing public information, is, by definition, not private information, and thus there's no privacy violation here. And all Simpson can do is pull his nostalgia gig about how things used to be different when people would forget your embarrassing things in the past. But that doesn't answer the question at all. It just makes Simpson seem totally out of touch with the modern world.