TOC Conflicts of interest. Your Turn

March 4, 2008

"What we have here is a horse race, and in this contest Comcast owns the racetrack, in fact the only track in town. They also own a horse. We are being told they are only slowing down our horse by a few seconds." Many thanks to Gilles BianRosa for painting such a vivid picture of what conflicts of interest are all about and to Stephen Labaton for filing his story with this gem of a quote (*). ePrivacy is all about money, I wrote last week. I apologize. It is also about conflicts of interest. How to spin them in one's private favor, how to give them spin for public consumption.

In the case of Comcast, the issue is about Net Neutrality. My position has not changed since last year. Open access Internet may indeed suffer from some technical limitations and new competitors should be allowed to lay out higher quality services. But incumbent duopolies such as Comcast and Verizon should be prevented from handicapping Internet content suppliers on their current networks. It would also help if they were to rein in their marketing department. How about using a large boldface to print "when nobody else is online" whenever they boast of their top bandwidth?

Conflicts of interest are so dangerous because they undermine trust and Society cannot function in the absence of trust. Take the case of the transplant surgeon who happened to be in the same room as a dying patient whose organs he intended to remove. Because he had an interest in the patient's death, his every act, word, expression have become suspect. Whether Justice can overcome such a bias is hard to tell. This is why, as Jesse McKinley notes in her report (**), "transplant teams are not allowed in the room of the potential donor before [the patient is declared dead]".

How could it be then that the Federal Trade Commission allows companies like Google to engage in untramelled monitoring of user behavior?

Here is a quick review of some recent facts. First Chris Nuttall shares with us that Google revenues are hurt by the current economic slump (***). Then Richard Waters tells us about Google plans for "a digital health records system meant to give users more control over their personal healthcare", adding "for now, Google has no plan to sell advertising around the health service" (****). This is perhaps the British understatement of the year. Saul Hansell's analysis is slightly more direct. "Let's be clear: the company's new medical records system is largely about advertising, especially ads from drug companies" (*****).

Because Google has an obvious conflict between its shareholders' interests and its users' privacy, Google should not be trusted. By calling instead for industry self-regulation, the FTC willfully ignores why wolves should not shepherd the sheep. Were Google to stop recording user searches and renounce personalized advertising, then but only then, would I agree with Saul Hansell's positive conclusion "the company can play this totally clean".

He who writes this fillip in defense of ePrivacy would benefit if his solutions were adopted. But do not confuse self-interest and conflict of interest. If you don't care about privacy, why read my fillips? But if you do, our interests coincide. Help cut Google spin and put a spine back into the FTC.

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ............ F.C.C. Weighing Limits On Slowing Web Traffic, by Stephen Labaton (New-York Times) - February 26, 2008
  • (**) ......... Surgeon Is Accused of Hurrying Death of Patient to Get Organs, by Jesse McKinley (New-York Times) - February 27, 2008
  • (***) ....... Concerns as Google fails to click, by Chris Nuttall (Financial Times) - February 28, 2008
  • (****) .... Google announces plans to create personal healthcare database, by Richard Waters (Financial Times) - February 29, 2008
  • (*****) .. Google Health And Drug Ads, by Saul Hansell (New-York Times) - March 3, 2008
March 2008
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