Vivaldi CEO Claims Google Retaliated for Privacy Criticism

Vivaldi CEO Jon von Tetzchner, the brains behind both the new Vivaldi browser and the early Opera browser, on Monday accused Google of retaliating against his company after he questioned its customer privacy practices.

Vivaldi’s Google Adwords campaigns mysteriously were suspended just two days after von Tetzchner’s criticisms of Google’s handling of customer data appeared in a Wired article this spring, he said.

Von Tetzchner had raised questions about both Google’s and Facebook’s data collection practices, lamenting the fact that too much personal information was being collected on ordinary consumers for use in targeted advertising based on individual browsing habits.

That was the second time that Google suspended Vivaldi’s AdWords campaign in 12 months, von Tetzchner told the E-Commerce Times.

After Vivaldi complained about the actions, the responses from Google were less than satisfying, he added.

“In both cases, when contacting Google, there has been no clarity why it happened or at least it seemed really hard for Google to explain,” von Tetzchner said. “The second time it happened two days after a series of interviews where I questioned the tracking practices of Google and Facebook and their use of the collected data.”

Friendship Cooled

The relationship between the two dates back many years to when von Tetzchner was CEO of Opera, which once enjoyed a close relationship with Google.

Opera was the first browser to have Google search integrated into its browser, according to von Tetzchner.

However, that relationship frayed over time, as Google moved closer to the Mozilla Foundation; launched Google Docs, which was incompatible with Opera; and eventually introduced its own Chrome browser.

The Vivaldi browser is based on Chromium, an open source project led by Google and built on WebKit and KHTML. However, users still have to hide their identity when visiting services like Google Docs, according to von Tetzchner.

Google denied that the AdWords suspension had anything to do with the critique, but it took the opportunity to launch a few counterpunches.

“We certainly don’t suspend anyone from AdWords because they criticize us,” Google said in a statement provided to the E-Commerce Times by spokesperson Elisa Greene.

“We do take action against sites that contravene our guidelines and policies about software downloads, which are there to ensure that our users know exactly what they are downloading and that the installation process is safe and easy to understand,” the statement says. “And we follow those same guidelines and policies for our own products.”

Facebook did not respond to our request to comment for this story.

Browser Wars

Although there’s no indication that any formal complaints have been filed with the European Commission or other regulators, Von Tetzchner is fighting on familiar territory. Back in 2007, when he was CEO of Opera Software, his company filed a complaint against Microsoft, alleging that the way it bundled Internet Explorer with its Windows operating system constituted an abuse of its dominant position.

In 2009, Opera Software won that case, which led to key changes in access to Windows computers for browser developers. Users of Windows XP, Windows Vista and Windows 7 were offered a choice of browsers.

Ironically, prior to the European Commission’s ruling against Microsoft, both Mozilla and Google had Opera’s side in the case.

Asked about Vivaldi’s conflict with Google, “the FTC does not comment on the activities of a particular business unless 1) we have investigated, and 2) we are issuing a complaint,” said spokesperson Betsy Lordan.

“We have not issued a complaint in the Google-Vivaldi matter,” she told the E-Commerce Times.

Privacy History

Google recently has faced other allegations regarding its privacy issues and competitive practices.

The EU earlier this summer slapped the company with a record US$2.7 billion fine for biasing search results to favor its own shopping comparison site over smaller competitors.

Also this summer, the Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, asking the agency to block Google from tracking in-store purchases.

The power and influence Google wields is virtually unmatched among its Silicon Valley peers, cautioned Marc Rotenberg, executive director of EPIC.

“Google has an almost unique ability to silence critics,” he told the E-Commerce Times, although he noted that he has no idea of what transpired between Google and Vivaldi.

“Between its political influence and its control of the world’s dominate gateway for news and information,” Rotenberg said, “Google’s power is unmatched even among the tech titans.”

David Jones is a freelance writer based in Essex County, New Jersey. He has written for Reuters, Bloomberg, Crain's New York Business and The New York Times.

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