Infamy, Infamy, they’ve all got it in for me!

“Beware the Ides of March!”

These are strange times for a company who does no evil. The top people at Google must feel at times as though everyone’s got it in for them. Google already faces 20 years of privacy audits from the FTC in the US and is under fairly continuous attack by regulators in Europe – as I blogged last week, Commissioner Reding in particular seems ready to rumble. More that that, it is facing almost unprecedented and aggressive advertising and lobbying from its competitors – Microsoft in particular seems to be trying to ‘smear’ Google, as one noted blogger has put it. Google’s new privacy policy, officially in place since 1st March, has come under attack from almost everyone – not just the various regulators and their competitors but a whole range of privacy advocacy groups. Google are under attack from the top to the bottom – in the UK, privacy campaigner Alexander Hanff has launched a small claim against Google, effectively asking for his money back for the Android phone he bought before the privacy policy came in. On top of all this, the latest revelations that apps on the Android platform can access your calls and texts has sent waves of dissent and anger around the web.

Why does it look as though everyone has got it in for Google? Jealous competitors trying to bring down them down for purely selfish reasons? Sniping privacy advocates missing the point? Overzealous regulators trying to catch the biggest fish? After all, Google are the good guys! As they see it, they’ve been open and honest about their privacy policy, giving people plenty of warnings that it was coming in – far too many for some. I’ve lost count how many times they’ve tried to tell me all about it in various ways. Also from their perspective, the problems with Android are just a side effect of their ‘openness’ – compared to the ultra-controlling Apple, they give app developers plenty of freedom. As for the European regulators, well we all know they’re crazy, and their right to be forgotten is just an excuse for censorship – all Google are doing in opposing them is fighting for freedom. Excessive regulation could “stifle innovation and stall foreword progress” as Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt warned last week.

Are Google right and everyone else wrong? I can see their perspective – and have some sympathy with them in some ways. The glee with which their competitors have leapt upon the privacy policy furore isn’t exactly edifying, and I can’t say that I would trust Microsoft or Facebook any more than I would Google – and even the previously relatively ‘clean’ Twitter has seriously blotted its privacy copybook by selling its tweet archive to data-miners Datasift. It’s also true that European regulators can seem to have a tendency to use a sledgehammer to crack even a small nut….

….but from my perspective, at least, there’s something in each of the complaints, and the way that Google seems to be dealing with them doesn’t exactly seem positive or productive. They’ve come out fighting, complaining about regulation without seeming to ask why that regulation has happened. Regulation doesn’t come from a vacuum – if it did, it wouldn’t get support, even from the most zealous of bureaucrats. Regulation arises in reaction to a problem – sometimes it causes problems of its own, sometimes it is over the top, sometimes it misses the point, but it unless there’s a problem there to start with the regulation won’t get even close to becoming reality. Here, there IS a problem, and if Google wants to stop everyone having it in for them they need to start by recognising the problem and starting to address it. If Larry Page wants to stop excessive regulation from stifling innovation and stopping forward progress, he should know what to do.

Why did Caeser meet his doom on the Ides of March? Was it the jealousy of all those around him, each wanting to stick the knife in? That certainly seemed to contribute – but it probably wasn’t the main reason. Everyone had it in for Caesar because he’d become a tyrant. He’d stopped listening. If Google wants things to change, it has to start by changing itself. It has to understand why people are bothered by all the things it has done – and do something about them.

From a privacy perspective, Google stands at a crossroads. There have been signs that it had started to ‘get’ privacy – Alma Whitten in particular seems to have a real understanding of the issues – but at the same time there is still a sense that they want to ride roughshod over everyone’s objections. If Google choose the ‘privacy direction’, they could play a key part in shaping a more ‘privacy-friendly’ internet. They seem at times as though they’re floundering – privacy could be a chance for them to find a new role, one which would get the support, rather than the opposition, of a great many people.

P.S. For anyone that doesn’t recognise either the title of this post or the picture, it’s from that prime example of fine British film-making, Carry On Cleo. If you haven’t seen it – do!

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5 thoughts on “Infamy, Infamy, they’ve all got it in for me!

  1. Good post, Paul. There’s only one nit I’d like to pick: I take issue with the claim that “regulation stifles innovation”. First, I just don’t think it’s true. There’s nothing to say that people are less innovative when they are given a clear framework within which to innovate. Second, there’s good reason to believe that regulation sometimes *increases* innovation: for instance, if the law says that it’s unacceptable to test products on animals, the developers have to get creative and find workable alternatives.

    Of course, there’s a flip side to that, as we’ve already seen with privacy-violating technologies: if browser cookies are legally banned (or simply become easier to block), the miscreants resort to other kinds of cookie. If those get banned, they cast around for other options, like “Builtin Object Tokens”… The kind of innovation stimulated may not always be beneficial, but I think people like Larry Page need to be “called” on claims that regulation and innovation can’t co-exist.

    • Thanks for the comment – and I do agree. I think that Larry Page’s comment that regulation stifles innovation comes from an essentially selfish point of view. Regulation is more likely to ‘shape’ the nature of innovation rather than to stifle it. ‘Bad’ regulation will shape innovation in bad ways….

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