When Google chairman Eric Schmidt heads to Washington this week to testify before Congress, political theater will follow him.
Consumer Watchdog, an advocacy group critical of Google's gathering of personal information, is planning a barrage of stunts, a video, and testimony to highlight the dangers of the Web giant's growing power. The group is particularly concerned about Google's tracking of users as they move about the Web, and its gathering of data about them.
So Consumer Watchdog has hired mimes to follow workers around Dirksen Senate Office Building, where Schmidt will testify. Those mimes will be wearing white track suits emblazoned with the words, "Google Track Team."
The group wants people to feel uncomfortable, knowing that few would tolerate someone following them around as they move about their daily lives.
"If you do it on the Internet, though, you're Google," said Consumer Watchdog President Jamie Court. "It's got to stop."
The mimes are also going to be wearing "Wi-Spy" glasses, cartoonishly futuristic goggles the group created to underscore the data collection abuses, disclosed last year. That's when Google acknowledged that cars snapping images for Google Street View also captured so-called "payload data," including consumer e-mails and passwords.
Google has come under fire from Congress in the past for breaches of consumer privacy. And while the hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee's antitrust subcommittee is intended to examine Google's dominance of Web search, it will likely veer into a discussion about privacy as well.
In addition to the "Google Track Team" mimes, Consumer Watchdog has created a new video, its third highlighting concerns over Google's snooping. The latest video, a minute-long piece posted on its Web site and to Google's YouTube, takes quotes from Schmidt and Google CEO Larry Page about the business benefits of gathering data, and puts them in the mouths of animated caricatures of themselves. In the video, a sinister Schmidt and Page cackle, uttering the words of their real-life counterparts, as they follow a U.S. senator from his house into a public restroom and back to his house at night. "Mission Impossible"-style music plays in the background.
A year ago, the group created a similar video featuring a creepy Schmidt, driving an ice-cream truck, luring kids with free treats, then conducting full-body scans to gather data about them. The Schmidt character concludes: "Remember, we put the ogle in Google."
A second video, in January, featured the Schmidt character testifying before the Senate, repeating real-life Schmidt quotes, albeit with an ominous tone and chortle. The new video is the first from the group that features Page, who took over as Google's chief executive in April.
While there are plenty of groups worried about Internet privacy, few have gone to the lengths of Consumer Watchdog, which relishes its role as a thorn in Google's side. In addition to the videos, the group has sponsored conferences, written editorials, and taken out ads, all aimed at focusing a spotlight on Google's conduct.
Its primary concern is that Google is gathering a huge trove of personal information, much of it without consumers' knowledge. Worse still, according to the group, is that consumers are powerless to stop it. Consumer Watchdog's Court refers to the data that Google is able to amass as "an information monopoly."
"That's what Google has, and we want it broken up," Court said.
The group wants Congress to pass Do Not Track legislation, similar to Do Not Call rules managed by the Federal Trade Commission. If Congress can't pass that legislation and if Google continues to gather information about consumers, the group wants the company broken up and regulated like a public utility. It intends to submit testimony, the day Schmidt appears before Senators, to the antitrust subcommittee seeking to do just that.