A protest is better than a boycott

Posted: January 30, 2006 in CRM

Google has been in the news a lot lately, and not for the kinds of things that the financiers on Wall Street like to see. Last week it was revealed that Google, alone among major search engine companies, is resisting a government request to provide a representative sample of searches conducted by the search engine to help Washington better understand if its anti-pornography laws are working. It was also revealed that the company is editing its search results for the Chinese market helping to keep embarrassing or controversial information from Chinese searchers. Each customer using the Google service has a stake in these events and there is most certainly a CRM angle to be explored here.

Google deserves to be applauded for its, albeit somewhat empty, stand against Washington but also, it should be condemned for caving in to the authorities in Beijing.

Google’s resistance to the feds is one of convenient principle augmented by a desire to protect its intellectual property; the government only wants search patterns, not identities of those who performed the searches. So Google’s resistance is much more about not wanting to reveal its trade secrets, i.e. to show anyone how the sausage is made, than it is about protecting its customers, at least this time. Washington seems to be the city that invented the slippery slope and many observers feel that this request could be the first in a long line of what could evolve into demands for search engines to hand over what we always thought was private information.

For resisting government demands (so far) Google should be praised, regardless of its motivations. We consumers want and expect that what is generated in private should stay private and that the rules shouldn’t be allowed to be changed mid-stream. Now, in light of this semi-principled stand, Google’s caving to the Chinese government seems strange and disheartening.

The Chinese asked Google, and Google has acceded to the request, that some information that the search engine might routinely churn up not be provided to Chinese users. So for example, a search for Tiananmen Square made by you or me might return information about the massacre that occurred there as well as tourist photos of smiling locals. Under the Chinese scheme, the massacre information would be deleted.

As Google customers, or the customers of any other search engine for that matter, we have a right to know that the information we get is unfiltered and objective. And any company that purports to offer such services has a good faith obligation to deliver the unvarnished truth. Those are the basic assumptions and the implied contract between vendor and customer. It is the same principle as not revealing search data just because a government asks for it; there is an implied agreement that what’s private is private.

There is a long and honorable tradition in our civilization that when a vendor abandons its responsibility to customers, that customers band together to boycott that vendor. But boycotts alone are sometimes insufficient. In the mass market, boycotts tend to make great headlines but they fail to influence vendors for simple numerical reasons: there are too many people unaware or uncaring.
Google’s caving to the Chinese has been roundly criticized on all fronts. Why should a company supposedly engaged in information dissemination allow itself to be pressured into reporting something less than the truth? If the New York Times did something equally atrocious the chattering classes would be up in arms about the decline of civilization and the jeopardy to the First Amendment. Instead, a boycott was launched against Google by some well intended people who do not understand the ineffectiveness of the gesture.

I sometimes wonder if CRM has contributed to making us too passive as consumers. Last week I wrote about an antidote, the emerging "Dial O for a human" movement that’s gaining steam. Too often CRM has been used either overtly or unintentionally to rebuff customers. Got a problem? Stand in the electronic line. Dont have time? Tough. "Dial O for a human" represents customers finding ways to take back their participatory roles in the service process but it doesn’t have to end there.

What would probably be more effective in letting Google and the Chinese and American governments know that our relationships with search tools cannot be disturbed would be a protest rather than a boycott. What’s the difference? A boycott is passive and a protest is active. It would be a relatively simple matter for those of us who build Web sites and blogs to embed something the Chinese don’t want to see, for example, a picture of tanks in Tiananmen Square and maybe a peace symbol, something that speaks to the issue in any language, just to show solidarity.

The Chinese authorities would discover that they can’t trust any of the content delivered by any search engine, then what? On the flip side, Google and all search engine companies would get the pointed message that tampering with information works both ways. In this age, we need search engines but we also need them to represent the same truth anywhere on the planet, otherwise transparency is just a word, then what good is a search and what good is globalization?

So, what did you think?

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