OPINION

A Protest Is Better Than a Boycott

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 majorsearch engine companies, is resisting a government request to provide a representative sample of searches 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.

Google deserves to be applauded for its stand against Washington — even if it’s little more than an empty gesture — and it should be condemned for caving in to Beijing.

Protecting Customers or Itself?

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 what could evolve into a long line of 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 motives. We consumers want and expect that what is generated in private should stay private, and that the rules shouldn’t be changed mid-stream. Now, in light of this semi-principled stand, Google’s caving to the Chinese government seems strange and disheartening.

Censored Search

The Chinese asked Google — and Google has acceded to the request — to withhold from Chinese users some information that the search engine might routinely churn up. So, for example, if you or I were to search for “Tiananmen Square,” we might get information about the massacre that occurred there as well as tourist photos and 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. 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, customers may band together to boycott that vendor. Boycotts alone are sometimes insufficient, though. In the mass market, boycotts tend to make great headlines, but they often fail to influence vendor behavior 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 that is 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 people with good intentions who do not understand the ineffectiveness of the gesture.

Active Participants

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. Don’t 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.

A protest, rather than a boycott, might be a more effective way to let Google and the Chinese and the American governments know that our relationships with search tools cannot be disturbed. 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 everywhere on the planet. Otherwise, transparency is just a word. Then what good is a search, and what good is globalization?


Denis Pombriant is a well known thought leader in CRM and the founder and managing principal of the Beagle Research Group, a CRM market research firm and consultancy. Pombriant’s latest white paper, Adding Sales to the Call Center Agenda, summarizes his recent research in the call center industry. In 2003, CRM Magazine named Pombriant one of the most influential executives in the CRM industry. Pombriant is currently working on a book to be published next year. He can be reached at [email protected]


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