August 14, 2013

False Attack on Google Highlights the Web's "Idiot Echo Chamber"

There was (I like believe) a time when supposedly reputable news-oriented organizations made the effort to try independently verify "news" -- at least to the extent of verifying easily available materials -- before writing about or republishing items likely to inflame passions and falsely damage reputations.

Unfortunately, it seems that on the Web these days, if you figure you can capture some quick eyeballs and their connected clicks, accuracy is the least of your concerns.

This state of affairs creates what I've been calling the "idiot echo chamber" -- as usually idiotic accusations spurt out from a single source and then echo around the Net as purported facts -- when in reality they're nothing of the kind.

We've just been treated to another vivid example of this, courtesy (initially) of reliably Google-hating "Consumer Watchdog" and Putin's propaganda channel "Russia Today (RT)."

This sorry sequence began when Consumer Watchdog breathlessly proclaimed that Google had been caught in a legal brief proclaiming that "Gmail users have no expectation of privacy." RT picked up the story, and sites that we normally would consider to be reasonably reputable started echoing it without further investigation, playing on the current climate of government surveillance furor (and in many cases, related hyperbolic and unjustified paranoia).

Unfortunately for the fearmongers, there was a problem.

The specific quote and associated legal discussion didn't actually relate to Gmail users at all, and had been taken obviously and utterly out of context.

In fact, the language in question related specifically to third-parties sending email to Gmail users, not to Gmail users themselves.

We all know (or should know) that when you send email to someone, that someone normally has the right to process and use that email as they see fit. If you send email to a Gmail user, or a user of any other email system, that email becomes subject to that system's facilities for spam and phishing scanning, sorting, searching, saving, forwarding, redistribution, and all manner of other operations of the addressee's chosen email environment.

All Google was saying (in this ridiculous case where plaintiffs are insanely arguing that a Gmail user receiving email from a non-Gmail user shouldn't be able to use the full scope of Gmail functions), is that in normal cases the sender of email doesn't get to dictate what the receiving email system (and receiving user) does with it.

Any other interpretation would be both disingenuous and in any practical sense utterly ludicrous.

If news sites had bothered to take a few minutes to inspect the actual court filing (widely available online), they should have immediately noticed that the section of the filing containing the supposedly controversial statement specifically related to non-Gmail users' expectations, and so in reality wasn't a controversial statement at all -- simply common sense and widely accepted practice.

I don't really expect any better from Consumer Watchdog or Putin's RT. But it seems reasonable to at least hope for more sense from mainstream news and other websites who portray themselves as accurate sources of information.

Here's some free advice for those latter sites. The next time you see a story on your screen -- regarding any topic -- that seems so outrageously controversial that you just know it will attract viewers like flies to honey no matter how inaccurate it is, please consider doing yourselves and your audiences a favor -- and spend a bit of time thinking about whether or not the story really makes any sense -- and then try to do at least a modicum of investigation and confirmation before dumping it onto your own websites.

Yes, you may give up some clicks in the short run, but at least you won't keep renewing your starring roles in the "idiot echo chamber" deluxe.

(Disclaimer: I'm an occasional consultant to Google. My postings would be exactly the same if I weren't.)

Posted by Lauren at August 14, 2013 01:57 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
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