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Hot on the Web

A little late, a little clueless

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on June 3, 2005
(Issue 2322, Your Web Address)

The title of the June 9 conference in Berkeley is "Truth or Consequence: How Failure to Disclose Ad Relationships Threatens to Burst the Search Bubble."

Unfortunately, that's June 9 of this year. As in next Thursday.

If the above conference was being held on, say, June 9 2003, it might have been worth stopping by. But the whole sponsored links issue (which is what the above conference is about) is such old news that it's befuddling as to why anyone would host such a conference today.

Well, it's confusing until you consider just who is holding this conference: Consumer Reports.

Like many other non-profit "advocacy" groups, Consumer Reports has in many ways been left behind by the explosion of the Internet – a fact made all too clear by the utter irrelevancy of the above conference.

A history of online feebleness

While non-profits don't have stockholders, that doesn't mean they don't chase money just like the for-profits. There are, after all, bills to pay. And once an organization exists and people have jobs there, it becomes to some extent it's own reason for being – no matter how noble the intentions behind its founding.

We saw this as far back as the late 1980s, before the Internet was even made public. People who ran dial-up bulletin board services (BBSs) from their homes were having their computers seized and being charged with felonies if they had any nude photographs on their BBS. What made this so outrageous was you had a couple from Central California hauled back to Tennessee to face obscenity charges based on community standards in Tennessee (where the files had been downloaded to by an overzealous cop).

Traditional civil liberties groups – the ACLU in particular – where nowhere to be seen on this issue. So up stepped the Electronic Frontier Foundation, or EFF. The EFF was a strong advocate for online liberties from the get-go, and helped defend not only the Milpitas, Calif. couple, but many other folks who found themselves caught in the tussle between rapidly advancing technology and laws written before the Internet was even thought of.

Of course, once the 'Net was opened to the public in the early '90s, legal issues were only compounded.

While the EFF was quite competent and providing both legal counsel to those charged and political leadership for the online civil liberties community, it never had the name recognition nor media savvy of the ACLU.

And so when Congress passed the first of several laws to regulate pornography online, the ACLU – seeing its fund-raising potential and national relevance at stake – jumped into the fray, pushing the more learned EFF aside.

Unfortunately, the ACLU didn't cooperate with the EFF as well as they could have (not wanting to share the credit and/or potential fundraising, perhaps?), and the result was a splintered effort for several years from the civil liberties community.

Back to the present

This isn't all that uncommon, however. San Diego residents may remember a few years ago when the San Diego Blood Bank found itself in a bind when the local Red Cross decided to underbid the Blood Bank's contracts with local hospitals. It was a heavy-handed bit of corporate behavior by the Red Cross, and one that did nothing to further the public's health.

And now we see Consumer Reports re-fighting a battle was already largely won by others. When Google and other search engines began including "sponsored links" in search results in the late 1990s, there was an uproar from online civil liberties and privacy groups that this was an inherently dishonest practice. Hearings were held, lawsuits threatened (and some might have even been filed), and eventually all the major search engine players agreed to clearly label links that were paid for as opposed to those being ranked by relevancy or whatever other criteria that search engine uses.

And that was all two to three years ago.

Obviously, the "search engine bubble" – as Consumer Reports puts it in their flier they sent me – is in no danger of "bursting." That's nothing more than ridiculous hype from Consumer Reports. And the clearly labeled ads inserted in search results are in no danger of undermining consumer trust.

It's not that Google and the other search engine providers are inherently honest or trustworthy – no business is. They exist to make money. But online civil liberties groups such as the EFF, the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse and others have been vigilant all along and continue to be.

We all should be vigilant, in fact.

But Consumer Reports' willingness to create controversy where none exists, to resort to scare tactics on an issue that is largely settled, shows how far out of the loop this traditional non-profit advocacy groups is when it comes to online issues.