Google really needs a compliance officer and complete makeover of their corporate culture. They need someone to enforce adult codes of behavior on their employees, from the most junior programmers to their most senior officers and executives. Today's complaint is a relatively small one, not a drug smuggling scandal or persistent violations of its consent decree. This column is about a senior officer misbehaving, allegedly as an individual, but directly in his area of corporate responsibility.
In the United States, all individuals enjoy freedom of speech, which is the right to say anything, no matter how absurd, and no matter how offensive; this right to believe, to say, to print, to broadcast, and to post anything at all is assured by the First Amendment to the Constitution. A Supreme Court decision ruled that by extension, a corporation is an individual, and a corporation presumably now has the right to say anything, no matter how absurd, and no matter how offensive. There are limits, of course, but not many; with the overturn of U.S. v. Schenck in 1969, it may indeed now be legal to shout "fire!" in a crowded theater when there is no fire.
Whether or not there are legal restrictions, decency and norms of behavior may suggest some restrictions on free speech, especially by individuals with public positions of great responsibility. This is true even if they are speaking as individuals, when they are speaking in areas directly related to their public positions. If the Surgeon General publicly said that smoking does not cause cancer, or the Secretary of Education endorsed separate but equal schools with segregation based on race, gender, or anything else, he or she would be forced to resign.
A statement like the following would not help:
"This is a place for me to ruminate about Public Health. Since I work as the United States Federal Government's most senior health spokesman, I need to point out that these ruminations are mine, not those of the US Federal Government. Please don't attribute them to the Government and please do not read any policy implications into my remarks."
If the Surgeon General says anything about public health that is truly dangerous, truly dumb, or truly offensive, he would have to resign.
Apparently this is not true of Google employees. Peter Fleischer, Google's Global Privacy Counsel just wrote one of the most offensive and absurd blog posts on privacy and covered himself as follows:
"This is a place for me to ruminate about Privacy. Since I work as Google's Global Privacy Counsel, I need to point out that these ruminations are mine, not Google's. Please don't attribute them to Google."
Fleischer does not like the proposed new privacy laws in Europe. He writes:
"Re-read Don Quixote as you follow the debate about revising Europe's privacy laws. Is it more noble to pursue the glory of fantasy over the indignities of the real world? Do we want to defend an obsolete chivalric code, while the rest of the world looks on with derision? Do we want a strong privacy law that can be operationalized or a glorious piece of literature?"
The blog post makes three points:
1. Opposing Google on privacy is like tilting with windmills, not only due to fail but a sign of true madness.
2. American companies are "freaking and shrieking", and will flee Europe.
3. This will leave Europe a technical and technological backwater. Innovation will stop.
The blog is most gracious and most generous in expressing his concern for the impact Europe's foolishness about privacy would create for the economic future of the entire continent. He is apparently not worried about the effect that opposing Google would have on Google. He is worrying only about Europe, and he does appear to be quite concerned. He does not quite state that Europe will go back to horse-drawn vehicles and candle-powered illumination, but he does suggest the end of life as we know it. All Internet innovation will stop. All big data research will stop. Every vestige of future progress will stop.
The blog is guilty of utter nonsense. Wanting products and services to be clean and safe is not tilting at windmills and it does not ensure economic disaster. Banning DDT did not doom Europe to starvation and it helped preserve the environment. Promoting smaller, cleaner, more fuel-efficient cars did not drive Japan out of the automotive industry; indeed, consumers world-wide appreciated fuel efficient and well-made alternatives to Detroit's gas guzzlers of the 1970s and Toyota is now larger than General Motors. Demanding safety and comprehensive testing did not drive Big Pharma out of the United States, nor did it threaten US domination of medical progress; consumers around the world benefit from MRI devices and CAT scanners and a wide range of American pharmaceuticals. Having the earliest food purity law, the Reinheitsgebot, to protect beer drinkers did not drive German brewers out of business in the 16th century. Big data studies do not have to be dirty big data studies. We see this again and again: being dirty is not good, and being clean benefits both consumers and the innovators that produce clean products.
Being dirty can be bad for the environment, for consumers, and for dirty corporations. In contrast to firms that have managed to operate cleanly, a cavalier attitude towards environmental safety has not been good either for BP after the Deepwater Horizon or for Exxon after the Exxon Valdez disasters. Indeed, the reputation of BP and Exxon firms suffered; these were not just environmental disasters but reputational disasters as well.
The blog is not only economic nonsense. It is, of course, also self-serving and sanctimonious nonsense.
If Peter Fleischer wants us to read the Don Quixote story, let's read my favorite version, the Broadway musical version, Man of La Mancha. In a scene towards the end of the play, Quixote's niece Antonia and his housekeeper want to have him committed for insanity. They claim that this is not to keep his mental condition secret and avoid its affecting their reputations. Likewise, this is not to keep him from dissipating the family wealth, which would affect more than their reputations. They claim that they are only worrying about the well-being of the old man, and they sing1:
I've been, told he's chasing dragons
And I fear it may be true
If my groom should hear about it
Heaven knows what he will do!
Oh, I dearly love my uncle,
But for what he's done to me,
I would like to take and lock him up
And throw away the key!
But if I do... but if I do...
There is one thing
That I swear will still be true...
I'm only thinking of him.
I'm only thinking of him.
In summary, I disagree with the three points of Fleischer's blog post and maintain the following:
1. Opposing Google on privacy is not due to fail and it is not a sign of true madness.
2. American companies will not flee Europe because of Europe's privacy laws, since it is indeed possible to have industries and innovation that neither violate the laws nor abuse individual privacy.
3. Demanding clean innovation will save the Internet and online commerce, not destroy them. It is American entrepreneurs and businesses that are at risk, if they cannot find ways to innovate that are not based on deception, misrepresentation, and invasion of privacy.
Google really does need adult supervision. When Eric Schmidt stepped down as Chief Executive because the boys no longer needed "adult supervision" I was pretty sure what to expect. Unfortunately, I was right. Their behavior is not only unethical. It is, on occasion, quite ridiculous.
Mostly, Google really needs an effective chief compliance officer. Google also needs a corporate culture based on respect for the individual, respect for social norms that guide decent behavior, and respect for the law. Only then will they stop being directed by Larry, Sergei, and Eric acting out "See no evil, hear no evil, and do no evil". Only then will I be able to stop writing columns on their misbehavior.
1 If you want to enjoy the full song you can watch it on YouTube. I suspect that the owners of the material do not receive any royalties or any share of the associated ad revenue, but that is the subject of another post. See, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kKQSghkrAds.