Posturing on Consumer Privacy

Facebook is suffering from regular beatdowns in TV, print and in internet media. Public irritation with Facebook’s loose securing of consumer personal data has been festering for years. Despite having more newly critical friends than he needs, Mark Zuckerberg chose to refresh Facebook’s black eye by pushing back against Tim Cook’s “I wouldn’t be in this situation” quip. Cook had deftly aligned himself with consumer sentiment without attacking Zuckerberg, but Zuckerberg offered a gassy retort buried in four thousand words of his Vox interview. Poor choice Mr. Zuckerberg.

When President Trump spat vitriol at Amazon for using the US Postal Service to deliver packages at a favorable price, Jeff Bezos maintained silence. Bezos is trying to keep shipping prices low for his consumers. Engaging in a public tiff with President Trump would have prolonged criticism that few consumers will take seriously. Trump’s tweets will be forgotten in two news cycles. Wise choice Mr. Bezos.

The issue of how social media handles consumer privacy still simmers. We will hear much more at Congress’ next media circus. Of course, we will not hear classified information central to the “fake news” justification for at least half of the hearing.

The European Union has attempted to draw media attention to its peculiar rules on consumer privacy (the General Data Protection Regulation or GDPR) by using Mr. Zuckerberg as a prop for a Brussels-style “hearing.” From the EU’s perspective, that hearing should occur before May 25th, when GDPR is scheduled to publicly jump out of the cake. So far, Zuckerberg has politely refused that honor, but there is too much revenue at stake for Facebook to stonewall the EU for very long.

Throughout recent outrages proclaimed by some politicians and privacy activists, the biggest elephant in the room has remained silent. Although it has the most egregious track record for grabbing and selling consumer personal information to advertisers, Google wisely sits in the corner reading its bible.

For Google, silence is probably the smartest tactic. There are plenty of Google behaviors that offend consumers and some governments. Google’s AdWords business collects consumer personal information (identity and behaviors) to improve the targeting of digital adverts. Some consumers say they are highly offended by the collection of personal information, but others seem not to care.

The type of information (e.g. health status, browsing history, financials, device identity, etc.), and the perceived trustworthiness of the entity trying to collect it, make a difference in consumer willingness to peel back privacy.

If Google supported a less complex route for consumers to opt-out of all personal information collection, it could better serve consumers, but AdWords is so highly profitable, Google is unlikely to accommodate consumers.

Google sports a few other peccadillos. Google is working on compliance with an EU antitrust case for abuses associated with Google’s domination of the search business. Competitors claim that Google somehow manipulates search results to favor its own services – a complaint almost identical to one that the Federal Trade Commission had been preparing against Google in 2012. Somehow the FTC antitrust action was abandoned. The EU is also miffed by consumer personal data collection by Google and other social networking sites.

Earlier, Google used a motto of “don’t be evil,” but that was dropped in 2015 when most Google divisions were rebranded as part of Alphabet. Alphabet’s motto became “do the right thing—follow the law, act honorably, and treat each other with respect.” There is considerable daylight between the two mottos, particularly since in cyberspace there are very few laws. Google’s current media silence is definitely its safest stance given its track record.

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