June 11, 2007

Urgent Call For a Google At-Large Public Ombudsman

In both public and government circles, concerns are rising regarding important aspects of Google's ongoing operations. Some of these concerns are very real, and some are more a matter of perception than reality -- often magnified simply because Google is involved. In either case, the situation is exacerbated by the extremely limited opportunities for the public to interact directly with Google in a meaningful way regarding increasingly sensitive matters that can have highly personal and very widespread impacts.

A dedicated, at-large, public ombudsman to deal with these issues is urgently needed at Google, to interact directly and routinely with the public regarding Google, YouTube, and other affiliated operations.

The privacy, content-related, and many other concerns of ordinary users and organizations, expressed to Google through currently available feedback channels, appear to routinely vanish into what is effectively a "black hole" -- with a lack of substantive responses in most cases. If you don't have a court order or a DMCA "take down" notice, Google can appear impenetrable to expressed concerns.

Privacy International's reported inability to receive a response to their queries prior to the release of a new report regarding Google privacy is but one example of a seemingly pervasive situation at Google. I won't present here a critique of that report itself, but it's clear that both individuals and organizations commonly feel impotent when attempting to resolve many important issues with Google directly.

In general, both politicians and government agencies appear increasingly unsatisfied with this status quo, and their reactions could be extremely damaging to Google and the broader Internet.

I'm not suggesting another Google counsel. The ombudsman would have a role wholly different from that of Peter Fleischer's Global Privacy Counsel position, or Nicole Wong's Deputy General Counsel role. In fact, this would likely not primarily be a policy "development" role per se, though policy evolution over time would of course be significantly involved.

The ombudsman would be a non-lawyer who would be assigned full-time to act as an easily approachable and highly available front-line interface between the public and Google operational/R&D teams. This individual would be the primary initial contact for most queries from individuals and organizations who have specific problems related to Google content, privacy, or a range of other related policy matters. This technically knowledgeable individual would be well-versed regarding the relevant issues and ideally already possess a high degree of trust within the larger Internet community.

Such an ombudsman, by fostering open lines of communications, could immediately interact with members of the public and push relevant matters quickly up the chain of command inside Google for action as appropriate.

There's simply no legitimate excuse for a public communications void of such a magnitude at this stage of Google's development, especially with an organization of Google's size, market share, influence, and immense technical competence. At a minimum, ordinary Google users should be able to get quick, reliable, and substantive responses and resolving dialogue for their Google-related concerns, even irrespective of any final dispositions.

Communication is incredibly important in this sphere. The current situation is seriously and increasingly dangerous to Google. Backlash and reactive, knee-jerk legislation by ambitious politicians could easily unreasonably constrain and seriously damage Google, the broader Internet, and Net users around the world.

A Google at-large ombudsman along the lines that I've outlined could be the best and most practical way to help avoid such negative outcomes, while not disrupting Google's operations and growth. It would most decidedly not be an easy job for anyone, but would be an important position that definitely needs to exist.

I make this recommendation with what I believe are the best interests of both Google and the Net's users in mind. I want to see Google continue in its success. But a regulatory and public relations train wreck -- with major collateral damage across the Internet -- is increasingly likely unless serious and comprehensive improvements in Google's handling of this area are forthcoming in the extremely near future.

The appointment of a qualified and dedicated ombudsman, with the sincere support and confidence of Google high-level management, could go a long way toward making Google an acknowledged leader in responsive operations, to the benefit of us all.

Of course, it's not impossible that this call for a Google ombudsman will itself be ignored by Google. But in the final analysis, we can all hope that Google management will realize that creating this position is very simply the right thing to do.


Posted by Lauren at June 11, 2007 07:18 AM | Permalink
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