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Rabid Consumer Watchdog Attacks Google CEO

Rabid Consumer Watchdog Attacks Google CEO

Consumer Watchdog has created quite a stir with its Times Square jumbotron attack ad depicting Google CEO Eric Schmidt as a child predator. The so-called lampoon is designed to provoke outrage against Google's perceived privacy intrusions, but some viewers may find the privacy group's tactics even more outrageous.

By Erika Morphy
09/03/10 1:42 PM PT

Consumer Watchdog, a privacy advocacy group, is running a 15-second spot on a 540-square foot digital display in Times Square to promote a longer video the group made highlighting what it perceives to be Google's intrusions on privacy.

Both the 15-second spot and the longer video feature a ghoulish caricature of Eric Schmidt driving an ice cream truck, offering "free ice cream" to children. All the while, he is taking their personal information, conducting full body scans -- and in the final, longer version of the video, scaring them with secrets he has gathered about their parents.

Running through the ad is the implicit theme of pedophilia, with Eric Schmidt cast in the role of a creepy ice cream vendor who ogles children and surreptitiously takes their pictures.

The eye-catching spot is scheduled to run in Times Square through Oct. 15.

Google did not respond to TechNewsWorld's request for comment by press time.

Building Momentum

The question is, has Consumer Watchdog gone too far in making its point? That depends, in part, on what it hopes to achieve.

The ad campaign is meant to build on the momentum that has developed as a result of Consumer Watchdog's Google privacy and accountability projects, said John M. Simpson, director of the group's Inside Google project.

Their purpose has been to educate consumers about the level of personal information they give up when they use the Internet.

"Because Google is the king of the Internet, the gateway to the Internet, we targeted them specifically," Simpson told TechNewsWorld.

Google has made some progress in privacy over the years, which is laudable, said Simpson -- "but only because we have held their feet to the fire."

With this particular campaign, the group has a very specific purpose, he added.

Momentum is building on Capitol Hill for a "Do Not Track" bill that would be styled after the U.S. National Do Not Call Registry, giving people a way to opt out of being tracked on the Internet.

There are two bills pending in the House that could be amended to achieve this, Simpson said. "Our hope is to see a 'do not track' clause added to them -- or if they are combined, to it."

'Provocative' Depiction

"No doubt the ad is provocative," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of EPIC. "Consumer Watchdog is an aggressive advocacy group. Their approach is to get consumers to focus on threats to privacy, in this case by Google."

EPIC takes a different tack, Rotenberg told TechNewsWorld. "We are focused on policy and legal considerations about some of Google's business practices. When we see something we think is not right, we call it out."

Despite the difference in the approaches of privacy groups, there appears to be a consensus that Google falls short in certain areas. Its Street View program, for example, has been castigated for violating privacy. Google has admitted that its roving cars inadvertently collected data from unsecured WiFi networks.

Google's decision earlier this year to opt-in Gmail subscribers to its Buzz platform without their permission also caused a privacy uproar.

Further, Google's many cloud computing services do not routinely provide encryption, according to EPIC.

Still ... Eric Schmidt as a creepy ice cream vendor preying on children?

"I guess if you're looking for a place to run a less-than-subtle ad, a Times Square billboard is the place to run it," said Jonathan Askin, a professor at the Brooklyn Law School.

"The issue probably begs for a less-than-subtle ad campaign to incite people to think harder about privacy in an online world," he told TechNewsWorld.

Others have flat-out said the ad is inappropriate.

It does not help the legitimate debate over how to improve online privacy to present over-the-top and unfairly suggestive advertising, using scare tactics," Christoper Wolf, director of law firm Hogan Lovells' privacy and information management practice, told TechNewsWorld.

Backlash Against Privacy Crusaders?

From a PR perspective, Consumer Watchdog has struck pay dirt with its ad.

People are talking about it, and media outlets are writing about it, said Evan Bailyn, founder of First Page Sage.

"I don't happen to agree at all with their point," he told TechNewsWorld. "I don't think Google is a threat to privacy -- certainly nothing compared to what TSA is doing in the airports (with the full body scans). But this ad will definitely get people talking."

The ad runs a great risk of triggering a backlash against Consumer Watchdog, said David Johnson, a principal with Strategic Vision.

The theme of child exploitation "is a very emotional issue for people -- even consumers that might have a problem with Google could find this ad to go too far and be offended by it," Johnson said.

There are other reasons why it might fall flat, he added.

Google has a positive image with a lot of people who are only vaguely aware of the privacy debate, he noted, pointing to Droid cellphones, its free Gmail accounts, and of course the ubiquitous search functionality.

"Also, Schmidt is not a known entity to many people, like, say Donald Trump," Johnson pointed out. "It will be hard for a lot of people to understand why they should care."

Consumer Watchdog's Simpson shrugged off such criticism.

"Sometimes, as an advocate, you want to focus attention on an issue -- and if someone calls you crazy, then you put on your thick skin and smile, because that means they are focusing on the issue," he said. "As long as people are talking about the issue seriously, we are happy."


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