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[ NNSquad ] Why Google Needs an Ombudsman - Now More Than Ever

               Why Google Needs an Ombudsman - Now More Than Ever


I knew immediately this morning that I was facing what I call a "Did
you see this?" day.  That's what I call the effect of checking my
inbox when I get up, and seeing a long series of messages with subject
lines blaring variations on "did you see this?" - "you have to read
this!" - "hey lauren, what do you have to say about this?" - and so on.

In today's case, the object of so much sender "affection" was a
"Gizmodo" article titled "The Case Against Google," that might
charitably be described as a quite extensive "overview" of complaints
regarding recent Google practices ( http://j.mp/GImCYj ).

As might be expected in such an piece, the author chose to illuminate
his points in pretty much the worst possible light.

I've previously discussed my views regarding various issues that he
describes, for example in these blog postings:

"Google, Safari, and a Clamor of Cookie Confusion"

"Google's Privacy Policy Changes: Revolution? Evolution? Or Confusion?"

"A Few Thoughts on Google's 'Search, plus Your World'"

... and others.

And as much as I disagree with the author's interpretations on most of
his points, there are two aspects of his piece with which I do agree.

First, he suggests that Google is being hammered by complaints in
numbers and ways that are increasingly of concern.  While I would
assert that most of these complaints are exaggerated -- the results of
misunderstandings, and all too often the offspring of "dirty trick"
campaigns by anti-Google forces -- it is still undeniable that the
pressure on Google has really ramped up lately.

He also asserts that the core product of Google is now 
"Google itself" -- not simply Search.  He expresses "shock" at this 
revelation, but this evolution has actually been obvious for 
quite some time, nor is there anything at all nefarious about it.

The author himself notes that the kinds of services Google wants to
provide (and let's face it, that most users want) cannot reasonably
function in a set of isolated "silos" -- the original compartments
that are the natural result of Google's adding new services gradually
over a period of years.

Evolution of more integrated services not only better serves users, it
permits for more easily understood unified privacy policies, data
"dashboard" controls, and other useful functions.

This also helps explain why attempting head-to-head comparisons of
Google+ and Facebook are essentially wrongheaded.  Google+ is not
actually a standalone service per se, but should be interpreted within
the context of the overall Google ecosystem of which it is an
increasingly key aspect.

While Google's moves creating a coordinated "Google Experience"
(rather than a set of somewhat disparate and relatively compartmented
applications) have brought great benefits to users, there is also a
downside, as exemplified by the tone of the Gizmodo article.

A unified Google platform, especially in services application areas
where Google is dominant, and particularly for persons who are not
deeply versed in the details of associated technical and policy
realms, can find itself portrayed as scary, even a threat -- a
situation that Google's adversaries are very willing to exploit.

In my opinion, this presents a communications challenge that goes
significantly beyond the scope of traditional corporate
communications, which is why I've in the past invoked the "Ombudsman"
concept in relation to Google, and suggested that Google could benefit
significantly from such an employee.

There are various roles that an ombudsman (or ombudsman team) can
productively fill, especially for corporations that need to maintain
the trust of their users -- and the general public -- for the
furtherance of best practices along a variety of vectors.

An ombudsman can be crucial in helping to deal appropriately and
promptly with out of the ordinary user problems and complaints, that
in the absence of such handling may blow out of control into
breathless, damaging, and often utterly inaccurate media stampedes of
dramatic (and undeserved!) condemnations.  Are there decidedly
nontrivial scaling issues involved in accomplishing this role
effectively?  Certainly.  Is it possible to accomplish this
economically with appropriate triage and planning?  Definitely.

But particularly in the context of the unfortunately not uncommon
Gizmodo article sensibilities, the ombudsman's most important function
is to act as an unbiased "observer, analyst, and explainer" of 
issues -- often highly controversial ones -- that can arise at the interface
between companies, their users, and the public at large.

This is definitely not a role for the thin-skinned.  Ombudsmen are
employees of their companies, but must be recognized by both their
companies and the public as being honestly concerned about the
interests of all involved parties, and be capable of resisting
pressures to inappropriately skew any analysis.

To be effective, ombudsmen must have fairly direct access to both
operational teams and high level personnel at their firms, but
ombudsmen normally do not have "special powers" and cannot dictate
actions to their firms, only make recommendations (typically some
publicly, while others are private recommendations strictly within the
firms themselves).

As you can imagine, it is not uncommon for an ombudsman to feel that
they're "between a rock and a hard place" while balancing the job's
complex requirements.

Yet such balance from an ombudsman can be key to helping assure that a
firm's intentions and goals are not accidentally or purposely
misconstrued by observers.

And though the ombudsman's role may be viewed as being somewhat
thankless in various respects given the complicated interests and
issues involved, and while it can frequently take something of a "leap
of faith" for a firm to entrust an ombudsman in the first place, the
benefits all around -- for corporate organizations and the public that
depends upon them -- can be enormous.

Paradoxically, even in the most sophisticated and methodical of
technological realms, often a leap of faith begins the most logical
path towards the best possible tomorrow for us all.

Lauren Weinstein (lauren@vortex.com): http://www.vortex.com/lauren 
Co-Founder: People For Internet Responsibility: http://www.pfir.org 
 - Data Wisdom Explorers League: http://www.dwel.org
 - Network Neutrality Squad: http://www.nnsquad.org 
 - Global Coalition for Transparent Internet Performance: http://www.gctip.org
 - PRIVACY Forum: http://www.vortex.com 
Member: ACM Committee on Computers and Public Policy
Lauren's Blog: http://lauren.vortex.com
Google+: http://vortex.com/g+lauren / Twitter: http://vortex.com/t-lauren 
Tel: +1 (818) 225-2800 / Skype: vortex.com

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