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Everyone's Favorite Upstart Mom-and-Pop Search Engine Tries to Yank Watchdog's Funding
February 26, 2009 10:57 AM   Subscribe

Bob Boorstin, Google's Director of Policy Communications, wrote a letter to the Rose Foundation, suggesting that the foundation stop funding Consumer Watchdog, an outspoken Google critic.

Google later apologized for sending the letter. The latest accusations involve claims that Google lobbied Congress to gain the ability to profit from the sale of electronic medical records, a claim that Google denies. Consumer Watchdog countered that Google should back up its denial by fully disclosing its lobbying efforts.
posted by univac (49 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
OH MY GOD A CORPORATION HAS ENGAGED IN ATTEMPTS TO CONTROL THE PUBLIC DISCOURSE AND HAS LOBBIED CONGRESS TO ENACT LEGISLATION FAVORABLE TO IT! THIS HAS NEVER BEFORE HAPPENED EVER IN THE HISTORY OF AMERICAN SOCIETY! ALERT THE INTERNETS!
posted by dersins at 11:00 AM on February 26, 2009 [2 favorites]


Google, NO! I can't believe you would ever betray my trust like this. You were like a second father to me, the second father I NEVER HAD! I... I'm going to need some space for a while.
posted by FatherDagon at 11:04 AM on February 26, 2009 [2 favorites]


In the vacuum that makes up privacy laws, corporations will try to fill it by establishing and profiting from people's low expectations. Those low expectations make it harder for the public to curtail unscrupulous behavior down the road.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:04 AM on February 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


Maybe so, dersins, but perhaps they should reconsider their motto.
posted by krinklyfig at 11:04 AM on February 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


Yeah, well until Google gets rid of that "don't be evil" guiding principle, they will be leaving themselves open to this sort of criticism.

But this FPP, editorialize much? A "mom-and-pop search engine"? That's just stupid.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:06 AM on February 26, 2009


OH MY GOD A CORPORATION HAS ENGAGED IN ATTEMPTS TO CONTROL THE PUBLIC DISCOURSE AND HAS LOBBIED CONGRESS TO ENACT LEGISLATION FAVORABLE TO IT! THIS HAS NEVER BEFORE HAPPENED EVER IN THE HISTORY OF AMERICAN SOCIETY! ALERT THE INTERNETS!

If corporations act badly enough often enough, it ceases to be newsworthy and we should shut up and get out of their way!

FTFY
posted by univac at 11:09 AM on February 26, 2009 [15 favorites]


until Google gets rid of that "don't be evil" guiding principle, they will be leaving themselves open to this sort of criticism

I would like to humbly suggest that those who state or imply that Google's conduct in these matters is "evil" may possibly be engaging in hyperbole.

I would like to further, less humbly, suggest that those who state or imply that Google's conduct in these matters is "evil" may possibly have no fucking clue what "evil" really is.
posted by dersins at 11:10 AM on February 26, 2009 [5 favorites]


yeah, well, gmail is great and the google search still works fine, and there are no decent competitors. it's good to be the king. although those cocksuckers kicked me off adsense for NO REASON.
posted by Mach5 at 11:11 AM on February 26, 2009


I would like to further, less humbly, suggest that those who state or imply that Google's conduct in these matters is "evil" may possibly have no fucking clue what "evil" really is.

What are you trying to say? That unless Google butchers Belgian babies with bayonets they can do know wrong?

I would like to suggest that you have no fucking clue what Google's motto is supposed to mean in the context of contemporary ethical business practices, and that you have no fucking clue what what ethical business practices are.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:15 AM on February 26, 2009 [2 favorites]


My Mon and Dad ran a corner search engine back in the day. We used to help them out with searches after school and on the weekends, when things would get busy. We never complained, because that's what families did back then, they pitched in together and made it work. It was hard work, too, but it taught us a lot...mostly about porn.
posted by mosk at 11:15 AM on February 26, 2009 [39 favorites]


In the vacuum that makes up privacy laws, corporations will try to fill it by establishing and profiting from people's low expectations. Those low expectations make it harder for the public to curtail unscrupulous behavior down the road.

And of course, that further lowers expectations down the road! Fun times.

I would like to further, less humbly, suggest that those who state or imply that Google's conduct in these matters is "evil" may possibly have no fucking clue what "evil" really is.

Why don't you enlighten us then? I mean, are you saying Google can do whatever it wants as long as it doesn't go out and commit rape and murder as a corporate policy, they're upholding up their ideals?
posted by delmoi at 11:18 AM on February 26, 2009


"I would like to further, less humbly, suggest that those who state or imply that Google's conduct in these matters is 'evil' may possibly have no fucking clue what 'evil' really is."

OK. Say, can you send me your medical records? I may be able to make a bit of money from them. You don't mind, right?
posted by krinklyfig at 11:19 AM on February 26, 2009


What are you trying to say? That unless Google butchers Belgian babies with bayonets they can do know wrong?

I am merely suggesting that you re-evaluate your definition of evil. Trying to convince a foundation to withdraw funding from one of your most vocal critics may be wrong-- ethically bankrupt even-- but to call it "evil" is shrill and hyperbolic, and detracts from the point you may be trying to make.
posted by dersins at 11:21 AM on February 26, 2009


NO AUTHOR FOUND NO BACKLINK FOUND "I am merely suggesting that you re-evaluate your definition of evil. Trying to convince a foundation to withdraw funding from one of your most vocal critics may be wrong-- ethically bankrupt even-- but to call it 'evil' is shrill and hyperbolic, and detracts from the point you may be trying to make."

Then what's the point of their motto? Should it be changed to "Do no evil, but profit is more important than ethics"? What, then, is evil?
posted by krinklyfig at 11:23 AM on February 26, 2009


Damn metafilthy ...
posted by krinklyfig at 11:23 AM on February 26, 2009


They got rid of 'don't be evil' a long, long time ago - not in a metaphorical sense, but in an excise-from-our-identity, literal, sense. It was their first bit of clever marketing, before they turned into the slightly impaired-judgement advertising* juggernaught they are now. Everyone remembers it - dorky logo, idealistic mantra, they so cute! before their IPO brought the need for i/amorality to the fore.

I remember how wild and wacky they seemed when they had no lobbyists working for them. But there's only so much power engineers can get you, and they soon got showed their place in the line.

Desjardins, this is slightly messier, as this ZOMG COPRORATION *mediates* public discourse, in a totally private, black-box, trade secret manner. They control what information you are made aware of. They control what you can find and how you find it. They control who pays for the production of much of that information, or at least, who profits from it. They control blogspot, blogger, an IM client, a mail and RSS ecosystem, one of the biggest advertising networks on the planet, centralised identity management, entire data centers, and mobile networks. Any one of these things, and I'd be behind you, with my mock caps. But these guys don't just join the dots; they *are* the dots. And the joints. And the overall shape. And your awareness of it.

* Advertising and PR were both known as 'propaganda' before a particular ideology tainted that word for all those other honest players in the discourse manipulation space
posted by davemee at 11:24 AM on February 26, 2009 [3 favorites]


I am merely suggesting that you re-evaluate your definition of evil. Trying to convince a foundation to withdraw funding from one of your most vocal critics may be wrong-- ethically bankrupt even-- but to call it "evil" is shrill and hyperbolic

Sooo... it's OK for Google to be ethically bankrupt, so long as they're not evil? Good to know.
posted by Slap*Happy at 11:26 AM on February 26, 2009


Sooo... it's OK for Google to be ethically bankrupt, so long as they're not evil?

Yes. You're right. That's exactly what I wrote.
posted by dersins at 11:30 AM on February 26, 2009


I am merely suggesting that you re-evaluate your definition of evil. Trying to convince a foundation to withdraw funding from one of your most vocal critics may be wrong-- ethically bankrupt even-- but to call it "evil" is shrill and hyperbolic, and detracts from the point you may be trying to make.

This should be true. And if it were any other company, I would agree. But the fact is that Google started out using the 'don't be evil' line. From Paul Buchheit, who created it.
It just sort of occurred to me that “Don’t be evil” is kind of funny. It’s also a bit of a jab at a lot of the other companies, especially our competitors, who at the time, in our opinion, were kind of exploiting the users to some extent.
Now they started it is not a good defense. However, their own usage of evil was to talk about company who acted improperly. Using it to refer to Google when they are doing something ethically bankrupt is not hyperbole, it is rhetoric. Taking the opponent's motto and showing how they fail to live up to it is not shrill, it's good communication.
posted by Lemurrhea at 11:34 AM on February 26, 2009


Back to the post; that any executive at *any* company would think that trying to defund a critic, especially one as well known as Consumer Watchdog, was going to play out well for them, speaks to an executive that should not be trusted to make decisions at all.

Seriously, that shows such a complete lack of comprehension that he should be removed from decision making across the board. That was pure stupid on a plate.
posted by dejah420 at 11:38 AM on February 26, 2009 [3 favorites]


I would like to further, less humbly, suggest that those who state or imply that Google's conduct in these matters is "evil" may possibly have no fucking clue what "evil" really is.

That's asinine. Even if the larger definition of the word 'evil' is not easily applicable to unethical business practices, Google's inclusion of the word in their credo obviously represents a commitment to ethical OP.

Or did you think they were just promising never to raise an army of child soldiers and send them over to fuck things up at the Yahoo! offices?
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 11:42 AM on February 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


Dersins, I don't think anyone who encountered the initial "Don't Be Evil" motto thought to themselves "Oh good they won't kill babies". I think they thought to themselves "Oh they are committed to being a good corporate citizen, caring about their customers, etc etc". It's about context. And in the context of a business motto, "evil" doesn't mean what it means in the larger world. So it's a little disingenuous to say they weren't using the term evil to mean 'we won't do shady, sketchy, exploitative things'. Slogans/mottos/advertising is not literal.
posted by spicynuts at 11:51 AM on February 26, 2009 [5 favorites]


"That was pure stupid on a plate."

I imagine we'll see a dessert, too. Maybe a whole tray of them.
posted by bz at 11:54 AM on February 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


It's not evil until they grow a goatee.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:57 AM on February 26, 2009 [2 favorites]


I heard Bob Boorstin drives a hybrid named K.A.R.R.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:07 PM on February 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


The fundamental problem is that we, the people who use Gmail, Google search, Docs, GrandCentral,
etc., are not Google's customers.

The advertisers are their customers. We are their product, the product they sell to their customers.

Asking them not to sell the information they gather about us is like telling farmers they can't shear their sheep. Why, then, would they want to have sheep in the first place?

The blunder of writing this letter, however, shows that Google does not understand that the most vociferous critics of a corporation can be the best allies that corporation could ever find against their own stockholders. Stockholders want profit, and they want it so relentlessly, and on such a short-term basis, that they don't care whether they push the corporation over the ethical line or into policies that are damaging in the long term.

And the law is on the stockholder's side-- just look at what Icahn was able to do to Yahoo.

Google can use its critics to avoid the same fate. "Yes, Carl (or Boone, or whoever), selling those records to Behemoth Insurance would be very profitable, but we can't because Consumer Watchdog would go ballistic, and the value of your stock would actually go down."

And not only that, critics focusing on ethics protect Google from startups which could prosper by cutting ethical corners and getting that short-term profit.

Google should have, instead, given money to the Rose Foundation to insure that Consumer Watchdog could continue to criticize it. That's the way to long term heath.
posted by jamjam at 12:13 PM on February 26, 2009 [10 favorites]


I'm just pissed off that I have now had to enable googleapis.com. First metafilter, then github. I am being assimilated and I resent it. You go consumer watchdog!
posted by srboisvert at 12:14 PM on February 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


> ...that any executive at *any* company would think that trying to defund a critic, especially one as well known as Consumer Watchdog, was going to play out well for them...

Boorstin never contacted Consumer Watchdog, he contacted one of the orgs funding them. The org notified Consumer Watchdog. Boorstin was expecting the same quality of confidentiality at the Rose Foundation that he (presumably) gets at Google.

Boorstin made was a bad request and Boorstin is the bad man in this story. But it sounds to me like a clash of corporate cultures rather than stupidity.
posted by ardgedee at 12:18 PM on February 26, 2009


Maybe Boorstin was just using his "20 percent time" to work on his dream of being a lobbyist.
posted by grounded at 12:18 PM on February 26, 2009 [3 favorites]


"I'm just pissed off that I have now had to enable googleapis.com. First metafilter, then github. I am being assimilated and I resent it. You go consumer watchdog!"

Seconded, I really don't like googleapis on metafilter and my use of favorites since its implimention has declined.
posted by 517 at 12:50 PM on February 26, 2009


“I would like to further, less humbly, suggest that those who state or imply that Google's conduct in these matters is "evil" may possibly have no fucking clue what "evil" really is.”

‘Evil’ is ‘good’ from an overwhelming myopic perspective.
As soon as one loses transparency, one tends to cease to be ‘good.’ This has always been true. Hell, Socrates knew that.
But any deviation from the path, however slight, eventually leads off it. That’s always been the problem with evil. It starts small and it’s easy to justify.

The difference between silencing corporate criticism and executing dissidents is only one of scale - not of kind. In each case they seek to suppress the truth, and that’s where all these things begin (Truth is the first casualty of war).
Sometimes a swift preemptive kick in the rhetorical pants can prevent a lot of problems in the future.
posted by Smedleyman at 12:55 PM on February 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think jamjam maybe on to something. Although that itself sound a bit sneaky, at least it's sneakiness in the service of good. It sounds like the kind of thing Google (c|s)hould try if they really did have the health of the internet at heart.
posted by JHarris at 12:56 PM on February 26, 2009


Truth may be subjective, though. Is Consumer Watchdog a reputable outfit? My cursory review of their site didn't immediately trigger my BS Detectortm.

Nevertheless, it's the ethical thing to do to tolerate even lunatic fringe criticism. One has a responsibility to get one's own message out, and to let the consumers/people/voters/etc decide for themselves. Silencing one's critics by maneuvering to cut their sources of income is downright Rovian.
posted by Xoebe at 1:13 PM on February 26, 2009


NO AUTHOR FOUND NO BACKLINK FOUND "Damn metafilthy ..."

sorry
posted by orthogonality at 1:15 PM on February 26, 2009


That unless Google butchers Belgian babies with bayonets they can do know wrong?

Chocolate fondue?
posted by biffa at 1:20 PM on February 26, 2009


Neither executing dissidents nor silencing criticism seeks to suppress truth. They both seek to suppress a point of view, which may or may not be true. Perhaps it is a fine point to make, but when we are throwing around words like truth and evil, I think it is worthwhile to be precise. We'd all like to imagine that truth and injustice are always in opposition, but it is far from guaranteed.

However, I am not convinced this is even on the same spectrum. This was speech. An opinion. You should not fund these people, and here is why. It carried no threat. If a relative was sending money to a creationist church, I might do the very same thing and attempt to explain why I felt that was a bad idea. As long as there is no coercion, it is simply speech. (There is a good discussion to be had about the extent to which corporations should enjoy rights like free speech given that there are vast imbalances of power that can make coercion very difficult to avoid, but does not seem to be the issue people are raising.)

To be clear, I do not think Google critics are equivalent to creationists. I tried to choose an example where most readers of Metafilter would agree that the "truth" of the matter was on the opposite side of the equation.

What people should really be doing is not hand waving about things like this, but working with Google, along with critics and privacy advocates, to hammer out real guidelines for things like data retention and data protection, and getting them implemented as law.
posted by Nothing at 1:43 PM on February 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


I am merely suggesting that you re-evaluate your definition of evil. Trying to convince a foundation to withdraw funding from one of your most vocal critics may be wrong-- ethically bankrupt even-- but to call it "evil" is shrill and hyperbolic, and detracts from the point you may be trying to make.
Sooo... it's OK for Google to be ethically bankrupt, so long as they're not evil?
Yes. You're right. That's exactly what I wrote.

Well, let me suggest that you may want to re-evaluate your definition of “OK”. Or would that be shrill?
posted by delmoi at 1:44 PM on February 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


Meh.

ConsumerWatchdog does some good work, but their treatment of Google is shrill to put it mildly. I'd probably make an honest case to get their funding cut if I worked for Google, too. The money would be better off in Bill Gates' charity. I guess that makes me evil. The only thing they really have on Google, aside from Google asking to have their funding cut, is a lot of whining about Google's privacy policies. It smacks of the giant collective panty knot over Facebook's recent privacy policy change.
posted by mullingitover at 1:45 PM on February 26, 2009


Google can use its critics to avoid the same fate. "Yes, Carl (or Boone, or whoever), selling those records to Behemoth Insurance would be very profitable, but we can't because Consumer Watchdog would go ballistic, and the value of your stock would actually go down."

Except that, according to Google, Consumer Watchdog's claims are flat-out false. So they are seeing damage to their corporate reputation already despite (claimed) good behaviour. From one of the links:

"We engaged for months with Consumer Watchdog and sent them detailed responses to their concerns about user privacy. But the group's recent actions--and in particular its baseless accusation that we were lobbying Congress for the right to sell patients' medical records--led us to believe that they are more interested in attracting media attention than in engaging in an open and honest dialog.

Google (claim they) are behaving well, and have attempted to demonstrate that the CW, yet CW continue to sling mud. Obviously people here don't trust what Google is saying, but I do wonder at what point to CW need to show some evidence, or can they basically say anything they want at all about Google and people will believe it? This thread instantly went in to the "Google is doing evil now" spiel, despite no proof at all that they are.
posted by markr at 1:46 PM on February 26, 2009 [3 favorites]


Google's not evil because they've got Dr Larry Brilliant working for them. Now if he was named Dr Twisted Brilliant, that would be a hint of something not quite right.
posted by storybored at 2:18 PM on February 26, 2009


I don't know much about Consumer Watchdog, but their latest post about this topic looks kind of like BS to me. That is, it suggests to me that Consumer Watchdog is mostly just looking for publicity here.

We probably mostly agree that it would be bad if Google could sell our medicals records to the highest bidder. But there doesn't seem to be any evidence that Google is lobbying to be able to do this. Consumer Watchdog's press releases say only that Google has -- surprise, surprise -- contacted various Congressional offices. We know Google does lots of lobbying -- both on benign issues like copyright reform and net neutrality, as well as on less clear privacy/monopoly issues. But I think Google generally is pretty open about this lobbying -- e.g. this post about their opposition to possible EU regulation about how long search logs and other data can be retained.

Contacting one of Consumer Watchdog's funding sources is tacky, but it could be warranted here.
posted by a.dog at 2:20 PM on February 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


Asking them not to sell the information they gather about us is like telling farmers they can't shear their sheep. Why, then, would they want to have sheep in the first place?

Lamb chops.

I'm all for the shearing if that's the only alternative.
posted by Spatch at 3:29 PM on February 26, 2009


On evil: do we have any indication that google (or its founders) believe in good/evil? If they don't believe in it (as some atheists and agnostics don't) then not being evil is easy for them - they couldn't be evil even if they did butcher little children (in their minds).

On 'Don't be evil'; this seems to be a distinct thing from 'don't do evil [deeds]'. Does google have any theologists on staff? 'Evil deeds' could be simply misjudgments, and the more judgments (or actions) you take, the more likely you are to make more misjudgments. Thus, as google gets bigger and bigger, they will invariably 'do more evil' (but perhaps not as a percentage of their actions, but by number, yes).

If they are even trying to avoid being evil, they're doing better than some corporations (if I had to pick easy targets there, I'd start with arms merchants).

on googleapis: Yeah, I can't allow that domain permanent javascript access on my machine, so its not on for Me-Fi (temp enable if I must favorite something). I wish google would use metafilter.googleapis.com (so I could trust javascript on a site by site basis - the reason I use noscript) [someone should start a metatalk thread on that subject].

On topic: I think it's great to disclose when companies are trying to kill funding for non-profits. I would hope disclosure of this sort continues.

Is this evil? Well, if a lobbying firm did this on their own, then its outsourced deniable evil. And to avoid using an arguable term (this is scummy perhaps, but not spine-shivering evil), its quite common when people or organizations are going to do something that looks pretty scummy they have a 3rd party do it for them. If the lobbying firm did something really awful that was universally hated, they could publicly fire the lobbying firm, and hire some new lobbying firm and be fine.
posted by el io at 3:49 PM on February 26, 2009


..those who state or imply that Google's conduct in these matters is "evil" may possibly have no fucking clue what "evil" really is.

Anything (except gassing Jews) is A-OK!
posted by DU at 4:03 PM on February 26, 2009



Google should have, instead, given money to the Rose Foundation to insure that Consumer Watchdog could continue to criticize it. That's the way to long term heath.


Yes, and scientists should all give money to flat-earthers, creationists, and global warming deniers! Some critics are useful, and some are trolls. I don't know enough to say here either way, but the statement above is way too trusting of the critics.
posted by wildcrdj at 7:07 PM on February 26, 2009


Google isn't perfect, but they get way more than their fair share of criticism, especially since their competitors are much worse when it comes to things like privacy.

For example, Google got killed over it's work in China, but they have actually probably lost business since they are unwilling to meet the chines demands for customer records and therefore haven't made gmail or blogger available to the Chinese market. Compare this to Microsoft or Yahoo, who have gone so far as to give up bloggers identities to the Chinese government.
posted by afu at 9:40 PM on February 26, 2009 [1 favorite]


What's TRULY evil is the horrible misuse of apostrophes. Grrr.
posted by grubi at 5:41 AM on February 27, 2009


“Perhaps it is a fine point to make, but when we are throwing around words like truth and evil, I think it is worthwhile to be precise.”

No, even suppression of a lie is suppression of the truth. The truth lay not in the content of a given statement (say, Bush blows goats) - the factual actuality of Bush fellating goats is not the matter - it is a matter of contesting other points of view.
As you say, suppressing a point of view.
Any suppression is, by definition, suppression of truth - because it’s not possible to determine otherwise absent dissenting viewpoints.

Before Copernicus, et.al. the objective truth still existed - the Earth still orbited the sun, Jupiter still had moons.
One can argue how close a given opinon gets to the truth, but there are vast differences between creationism and the Aristotelian view of the universe and perfect spheres and the science of orbital mechanics.

Creationism (and its attendant views of how the universe revolved around the Earth) may have been one of the unifying visions of Europe which led to some unity through the church and stopped some warfare and bloodshed (suppression of heretics and persecution of infidels aside), the fact that it may have been in that sense a ‘just’ view, doesn’t mean it was the truth.

Whether this in particular is suppression or just speech, yeah, tough call. But it’s not horseshoes, and I’m not willing to let anyone slide on ‘just a little bit’ of elimination of dissent.

In terms of how to go about about it - yeah, sure, engage Google, etc.

“Except that, according to Google, Consumer Watchdog's claims are flat-out false.”

Which is why Google’s suing CW?

All things being equal, who’s got more incentive to lie, the large corporation with the threatened profit margin or the non-profit consumer watchdog group?

This “but Google is good” stuff doesn’t wash. The last thing any company needs is less transparency. I don’t give a crap if they do ‘x’ amount of things voluntarily. Henry Ford paid his workers well above minimum wage and introduced all sorts of nifty labor incentives and he was still a fascist S.O.B. who opposed his workers organizing. I think it’s swell that Google didn’t screw everyone and their brother over in China like other companies. But that just exemplifes the need for enforced protections and transparency.

Human rights are not a gift to be bestowed at leisure.
posted by Smedleyman at 1:51 PM on February 27, 2009


Sigh. I hate being late to a party.

The real motto, revealed.

Human rights are not a gift to be bestowed at leisure.

Amen. One of my favorite quotes is "your enemies have important information that your friends are keeping from you". There need to be more eyes, not less.
posted by lysdexic at 3:39 PM on February 27, 2009


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