Comments From Google's Schmidt: Creepy Or True?

Yesterday, All Things D posted a list of creepy comments from Eric Schmidt, making the perhaps excessively harsh comment that Schmidt "has been happily high stepping across the creepy line like the grand marshal of the Tone-Deaf Technocrat Parade."

 First of all, we all know how I feel about comments taken out of context. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone, etc. But that perspective was referring to comments that are inherently objectionable -- calling your customers "stupid f***s" sounds bad no matter how you choose to interpret it. On the other hand, while Schmidt's comments may seem creepy, many of them are also just plain true.

Take the first All Things D example: "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place." As a practical matter, it's actually not a bad idea -- and certainly an excellent ethical litmus test. Ask yourself, "How would I feel if this action I'm contemplating were splashed on the front page of the newspaper?" If the answer is, "Ashamed," you may want to reconsider the action.



What's creepy about it is that Schmidt is using it as a defense of Google's stance on privacy. The fact that I'm doing something dodgy doesn't give you the right to spy on me. Creepiness grade: B-. Truth grade: B+.

The article also uses this example: "We know where you are. We know where you've been. We can more or less know what you're thinking about." Creepy? Yeah. But is that Schmidt's fault? The statement is entirely true. It isn't the comment that's creepy; it's the voyeuristic reality in which we find ourselves. In my office, we use a reputable online email service provider that shows us who clicked on which link; a colleague of mine gets completely skeeved out by that functionality. And rightly so; her point is that recipients of emails don't generally realize that their click will be visible to the sender, and so our awareness of their activity crosses the privacy expectation boundary. But that's also exactly the point with Google and Schmidt's comments: most people don't generally realize that Google knows where we are, where we've been, and what we're thinking about, and uttering that unvarnished truth aloud strikes a chord of creepiness directly connected to the violation of our expected privacy. Creepiness grade: B-. Truth grade: A.

One more from Schmidt: "One day we had a conversation where we figured we could just try to predict the stock market. And then we decided it was illegal. So we stopped doing that."

Really, All Things D? Did you not realize Google has the data and algorithmic muscle to try to predict the stock market? And isn't it a good thing that they stopped doing that because it was illegal? Again, the issue is not the statement; it is the frightening array of information that has become available to one private, mostly unregulated corporation. Creepiness grade: B+. Truth grade: A.

The PR folks want Schmidt to stop talking, of course, but shutting him up would only make us babies playing a collective game of peek-a-boo: if I can't see him, he can't see me. Ceasing to use Google won't make a whit of difference, either. If you actually want to make our digital world less creepy, you need to take action. Lobby your politicians. Lobby the FTC.

Need help finding them? Try Google.

You can find me even more easily than that: either leave a comment below, or let me know what you think via @kcolbin. Mwaahahaha...

5 comments about "Comments From Google's Schmidt: Creepy Or True?".
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  1. David Pavlicko from AVISPL, October 26, 2010 at 2:20 p.m.

    Google creepy? Oh, please.

    Sure they've done SOME things that are a little creepy, like:
    * stealing wi-fi data from homes as they drive by

    * recording goog-411 calls to improve their voice recognition (notice they killed that right around the same time Google voice went free? betcha they're still recording you)

    * conspired with Obama white house officials to lobby for programs and regulation that would benefit Google, then tried to bury their opposition once they were discovered (busted by their own 'buzz' email sharing issue. haha)

    * oh, yeah remember those Google engineers that just got busted for spying on those teenagers - and harassing them

    * periodically jacking up adwords bid rates on their customers ( presumably using the analytics and adwords data we all so graciously share with them. This is just a guess, but really - why wouldn't they?)

    ...hmmm....maybe they are a bit creepy after all. Actually they've been freaking me out for a while. I've got some more scary privacy stories on them here:

  2. James Lanyon, October 26, 2010 at 3:08 p.m.

    Well put. Glad someone finally engaged the privacy debate from a mature and realistic standpoint. Though I disagree with the idea most email recipients don't know their clicks are being tracked. My friend's dad refuses to bank online because he knows about the "cookies" that are getting on his computer. I think most people are pretty sophisticated about what comes onto and goes out of their device/computer.

  3. Jean Renard from TRM Inc., October 26, 2010 at 3:38 p.m.

    The idea that we can protect ourselves and our personal information is a myth already but that will be made worse by the callous machinations of companies like Google.

    The idea about doing something you do not want others to know, then don't do it, is a huge problem, who defines that line? Does anyone remember McCarthy? How about the little problem of being a JEW in Germany not so long ago? How about being a Christian in a predominantly Muslim area or the reverse? How about simply being immobile, making the house an easy target for criminals. There may be a million things we'd rather keep private and the likes of any smug CEO should stay the hell out of making those kinds of decisions, or hiding behind the hypocrisy of a company that makes money from selling such information.

  4. John Jainschigg from World2Worlds, Inc., October 26, 2010 at 5:09 p.m.

    I concur with your read on this. As you suggest, the _problem_ is that people characterize remarks like Schmidt's in personal terms -- as power-tripping/egomaniacal/whatever -- so judge them as creepy in a personal way, as when folks are making judgments about what will play well to PR strategy. We have a history, in this country, of disliking boastfulness and arrogance (it's the one praiseworthy aspect of our cultural anti-intellectualism). But it makes us ill-equipped to deal with folks like Schmidt, who are indeed personally creepy, but also just happen to run the apparatus that us computer scientists have voted 'Most Likely to Become SkyNet and Send the Terminators After Us.'

    Most of what Schmidt has said here, creepy or not, is either what Mona Lisa Vito would call 'dead-on balls accurate' (a technical term), or an understatement calculated to give smarter analysts a shiver, but fall short of actually causing mobs to pick up torches and storm the doors. My favorite line (paraphrasing): "We sat around in meetings and realized we could predict the stock market, but we decided it was illegal."

  5. Thomas Siebert from BENEVOLENT PROPAGANDA, October 26, 2010 at 5:19 p.m.

    Good article and comments all around, but " are a pick up stick that can be burned at the stake," from Paula Lynn is the best line of month.

    Let's face it: Google is too big to be anything more than an ambiguous cultural force -- at best. Use them because they have value and are virtually ubiquitous. Trust them: never.

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