Microsoft this week launched a third round of attacks on Google via its “Scroogled” campaign. This time, Microsoft claims that Google shares personal information when a user downloads apps from its Play store. Once again, Microsoft is right about Google and raises important issues about this company. But once again the reaction from tech quarters is overwhelmingly negative.
First, the claim.
“When you buy an Android app from the Google app store, they give the app maker your full name, email address, and the neighborhood where you live,” Microsoft notes in the new advertisement. “This occurs without clear warning every single time you buy an app. If you can't trust Google's app store, how can you trust them for anything?”
It’s a fair question. Unless of course you’re the media, which is the entity that should be asking these kinds of questions. Almost universally, coverage of this and previous Scroogled campaigns have focused on questions about Microsoft, not the questions Microsoft raises about Google. Here is some representative coverage from the past 24 hours.
“It’s a fear campaign, and it really doesn’t have any basis whatsoever” — TechCrunch
“Fearmongering (sic) attack ads” — The Verge
“The campaign stands out for its sheer negativity” — NPR (KQED)
Microsoft is trying to refute the media’s attempts to change the discussion. “The campaigns have been effective, as they’ve driven millions to the website scroogled.com, and in poll testing have reduced Google’s favorability in the eyes of consumers,” a Microsoft representative said. The company says that Google should be “held accountable” for its behavior toward its customers. (And to be fair, not all tech bloggers and reporters have fallen into lock-step behind Google. This ZDNet report is decidedly even-handed, for example.)
But it’s not just the press. I’m also fascinated by the differences in how these companies are perceived, both internally and externally. Over a decade ago, when Microsoft was flying headfirst into what would be a decade of antitrust troubles, Bill Gates was still running the firm aggressively, like a startup. This behavior, perfectly legal for a company with little market share, was proven to be illegal for one with a monopoly. And it wasn’t until later that Gates and his executive staff belatedly realized their mistake.
With Google, the issue is flipped. This company now owns dominant positions in search, both with desktop computing and mobile devices, and with smartphones, and is the largest advertising company on Earth. Its control of user information, data, and online behavior should worry customers. But it is still perceived by the public as an Internet startup of some kind—a cute, cuddly, and altruistic company that helps people find whatever they need whenever they want it.
That is, the misunderstanding about Google is external to the company, not internal as it was with Microsoft. With Microsoft over a decade ago, an 800-pound gorilla was running roughshod over the industry but no one understood that internally. With Google today, an 800-pound gorilla is running roughshod over the industry, but the public doesn’t see it for what it is.
Microsoft’s Scroogled campaign is obviously strategic for the company, but I feel it’s important for the public as well because it raises very real issues about Google’s corporate behavior. That the discourse over this campaign has centered on whether Microsoft is desperate, and in some silly instances about the supposed irony of a one-time monopolist pointing out this kind of behavior in a new monopolist (when in fact, it is uniquely positioned to do so) is not just sad, it’s dangerous. That the press and individuals in the tech blogosphere would participate in this deception is unconscionable.