WASHINGTON--In a small brownstone on a quiet tree-lined street in the shadows of the Capitol building, four people are plotting against the most powerful company on the Internet.
Tuesday is a busy day at the Washington office of Consumer Watchdog, an advocacy group generally focused on health care and insurance companies but with a prominent sideline as arguably the most vocal critic of Google. Office is perhaps an overstatement: the space reminds me more of a college graduate's first apartment than an office. But it's a temporary home to Consumer Watchdog President Jamie Court and his disciples as they gear up for a conference that Google CEO Eric Schmidt probably wouldn't rank among his favorites.
Court, chief spokesman John Simpson, Washington coordinator Carmen Balber, and social-media strategist Josh Nuni are planning the Future of Online Consumer Protections conference, which was taking place Wednesday amid the Federal Trade Commission's release of a report that threw the government's weight behind a "Do Not Track" list for the Internet: a controversial sentiment among companies that make their money advertising on the Web. They've been handed an early Christmas present courtesy of the European Commission, which chose to announce its decision to formally investigate Google on the eve of Consumer Watchdog's conference as Simpson almost gleefully fields calls from reporters asking for reaction to the investigation.
In between drafts of a blog post he's preparing for The Huffington Post on the do-not-track concept, Court issues orders, approves a $5,000 expenditure to Webcast the conference, and holds forth on the evils of Internet advertising companies, insurance companies, and Google. He also thinks it would be a good idea if I read his book, a suggestion repeated more than a few times.
"If you let engineers run the world, you're not going to be accountable," Court says, enunciating a popular criticism of Google that despite all its engineering prowess, it doesn't exactly understand how to operate in the real world.
For its part, Google is mostly bemused by Consumer Watchdog's brand of activism, which generally sends eyes rolling in Mountain View, Calif., but there's no doubt that Court has gotten Google's attention in the past: a Google executive so angered by Consumer Watchdog in 2009 sent a letter to one of its major donors, the Rose Foundation, urging it to revoke its funding. The executive, Bob Boorstin, later apologized.
"We're always happy to engage with groups that are interested in constructive solutions. But given Consumer Watchdog's tactics--calling for Google's breakup, releasing information about the home Wi-Fi networks of Congress members, working closely with Microsoft and our other competitors--coupled with the fact that they don't represent any actual consumers, we have doubts about how serious they are," said Adam Kovacevich, a Google spokesman, in a statement.
Truth be told, in Court's mind Google simply exerts too much influence regardless of its intentions. He thinks of Google as a utility, a necessary component of modern life but the master of a space in which competition isn't necessarily a benefit. In that light, Simpson argues several times on Tuesday during conversations with reporters that he doesn't want competition among rival firefighting concerns in his hometown, but he damn sure wants those firefighters to be scrutinized and regulated.
But what Court says he's most worried about is the vast amount of data that Google gathers on Internet-surfing habits, especially when it comes to children using Google. In fact, when Consumer Watchdog was looking for funding in 2008 to expand its mission from insurance gadfly to Internet pest, Court says he specifically asked the Rose Foundation, a California-based charitable organization, for $100,000 to target Google--not Internet privacy in general, but Google--because of the company's well-known thirst for data.
That grant was followed by a smaller one in 2009, but Consumer Watchdog mostly pays for its anti-Google activities through its general fund of donations and proceeds from legal activities, which apparently was flush enough in September to support a $25,000 outlay to run a video with an extremely creepy depiction of Schmidt in New York's Times Square for six weeks.
Over lunch at a diner a block away from Consumer Watchdog's Washington, D.C., office, Court flashes a sheepish grin when asked about the video, which depicted Schmidt as a creepy ice-cream truck driver bent on gathering as much data about the children on his route as possible. He doesn't exactly apologize for the characterization, believing that when you're up against powerful interests in a hyper-media-oriented 21st century, you can't exactly file a critical position paper and hope for the best.
Court says an activist organization with limited resources isn't in a position to refuse a creative ad campaign donated by a sympathetic cartoonist whom Court declines to identify. Indeed, many who would normally be sympathetic to Consumer Watchdog's cause as a preeminent Google critic winced at the video, yet Court suggests that January will bring another anti-Google campaign similar to that video, although he ruled out another tour through Times Square.
Court is sensitive to charges that he's a tool of the corporate interests that oppose Google, a list probably headed by Microsoft and AT&T and comprising any number of Internet companies stepped on by the search giant's relentless push into nearly anything it finds feasible and ripe for disruption. He denies receiving funding directly from such companies, arguing that while he could definitely solicit such donations, accepting that money would bring a rash of unintended consequences.
Spectrum of critics
Still, Consumer Watchdog does rub elbows with a variety of anti-Googlers.
It used to be affiliated with Grassroots Enterprises, a division of the huge public relations firm Edelman that counts Microsoft among its clients, and, amusingly, uses Google Analytics to chart traffic on sites hosted under its domain. Court said Consumer Watchdog has recently moved its site off Grassroots' servers and is now using an open-source analytics tool to measure traffic on Consumerwatchdog.com.
On the spectrum of Google critics, Court and his group fall somewhere between activists like Scott Cleland and Gary Reback, who both have acknowledged working directly on behalf of Google's competitors (and who both appeared at Consumer Watchdog's conference), and groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Consumers Union, who represent concerned members.
Perhaps the most damning criticism of Consumer Watchdog (other than its taste in cartoons) is that the only "consumers" who make up its members are its employees: the group refers to itself as a consumer advocate, but doesn't have an organized group of contributors from among the general public, like other organizations.
After two days spent in the company of one of the biggest Google bashers on the planet, there's a sense that the Google-specific attacks may be getting old. That didn't dissuade anyone at Consumer Watchdog's conference from taking swipes at Google, yet Court and his cohorts are starting to acknowledge that Google is just a rather large example of Internet-industry practices that grate on the group in general.
Court says Consumer Watchdog is starting to broaden its criticism of Internet companies in general as opposed to bashing Google 24/7, with Facebook squarely in its sights as the next big target for scrutiny. And he acknowledges that any successful regulatory pursuit of Google wouldn't necessarily prevent another company from simply taking over where Google left off, applying many of the same Internet advertising principles that raise his ire.
Still, Consumer Watchdog is a co-counsel in the pending legislation over Google's Street View Wi-Fi debacle, easily the biggest privacy-related mistake (or transgression) the company has ever made. Court supplements his budget in part by earning so-called "cy pres" awards, essentially the leftover spoils from lawsuits in which the original class of plaintiffs can't be easily compensated, and he could be in for a big payday once that legislation is eventually satisfied.
At the moment the anti-Google business isn't a particularly lucrative one: Consumer Watchdog's conference at the National Press Club was attended by fewer than 50 people and featured barely warmed-over croissant sandwiches for lunch. Google hosted a conference for several hundred business types in April that featured a five-minute tutorial on how to operate the fancy chairs allocated to attendees, sealing the pitch with free Nexus One phones for all in attendance.
But it certainly does attract attention, enough attention for Court to divert a fair amount of his energy away from Consumer Watchdog's main causes toward Google. In Court's book, "The Progressive's Guide to Raising Hell," he wrote "the public can win if its opinion is focused like a beam, and if the right person with a platform holds up a lens at the right time to magnify the force of the public's light."
Court thinks that public distrust of Google is growing, and he wants to be that person holding that lens. Google scoffs at the notion that widespread numbers of people are angry about its methods, but clearly there are some.
What Court doesn't mention in the book is that lenses can also be used to turn a very small amount of light into a raging fire. This appears to be his strategy with Google, taking nearly any tidbit that emerges about Google and turning it into an opportunity to bash the company. (Court used Google's decision to celebrate the 40th anniversary of "Sesame Street" with a Google Doodle of Big Bird to launch a trademark attack, calling the doodle "the Trojan Muppet" in suggesting Google was trying to lure children.)
It's rhetoric like that that makes it hard for the tech industry to take Consumer Watchdog seriously. For all the rhetoric, however, Court's basic message is simple: Google is the most powerful company on the Internet and needs to be watched extremely closely.
At some point, he'll likely find a few sympathetic ears in this town for that message.