"Private eyes are watching you, they see your every move." So sang Hall and Oates in their saccharine MOR swinger named after the noted satirical magazine, eerily presaging the most exciting event within ZDNet UK this week.
You may have noticed that the great gods of Google have fallen out with the mortals over at CNET Networks US, all because a journo with an eye for a hook annoyed Google CEO Eric Schmidt. Said journo used Google to dig up various public (or at least published) aspects of Schmidt's personal life, and used them to illustrate a wider story about privacy concerns. In return, Schmidt issued an edict that Google was not to talk to CNET for a year.
This is a complex story. Was it good journalism to concatenate details of a private individual's life and print them — wouldn't it have been better for the journalist to do the same to herself? Why pick on Google? Was Google's response useful or harmful to anyone?
On the first point, and having given the matter some thought, I think it was good journalism. There is a very good story to be written by probing your own online persona (plenty of dirt on Goodwins, for those so minded, but you can find it yourselves, shirkers), but this wasn't it. Schmidt has traded some of his privacy by being the CEO of a very important, very high profile company; by way of recompense, he has extraordinary resources to protect himself and his family — far greater than any of us do.
Also, whether it likes it or not, Google is lead dog for these issues, and it hasn't really been behaving appropriately. It's all very well saying "Do no evil", but this can be hard to square with a company which seems reluctant to acknowledge its responsibilities. The CNET article highlighted those, and the debate is much the stronger for it. We need to have that debate, and urgently: whatever your stand on this particular little contretemps, greater awareness of the wider issues is a good thing.
As for Google's response: from CNET's point of view, it produced acres of publicity which was generally favourable to CNET and generally hostile to Google — at one point, the story was second from top on the tech stream of Google News itself. And talking to the press certainly helps the press — but they're hardly likely to pull a story because one of the parties won't talk. Why Google HQ would want to gag itself is something of a mystery; there has been talk of a PR disaster, and I wouldn't demur.
But the timing was good. Over here, we wrote a particularly pungent leader on the whole business, reflecting our opinion that Google US had not showered itself with glory. The previous week, I'd recorded an interview with the Today programme about Google Earth and been sycophantic in my adoration. The producers decided to hold that over for a while until, yep, the day after the leader went up. Some readers caught both within the space of an hour and got a bit confused. It's easy. Yes, Google has genius. Yes, it's capable of acting like a blithering idiot. Let's see which one wins.