I spent this week in the European Parliament in Brussels. One of the seminars I attended was advertised as being a seminar on privacy, big data, profiling, and online identities. As interesting as it sounded, it was anything but.
As our delegation from the Swedish Pirate Party entered the fancy hotel where the seminar (with a free lunch!) would be held, a well-dressed guy gave us a sloppy-looking printout of two pages in black and white, stapled together. This was unusual; given the obvious money involved in arranging the seminar, this stood out as below the par. Even more surprising that it was a hardcopy of a Telegraph article, Dark Forces Gunning For Google, that was over a year old.
Something here wasn’t right. Sort of like a subtly gnawing pebble in your shoe. What did Google have to do with this discussion in need for regulating governments’ appetite for citizen data and corporations abusing their privacy policies? Why did I just get that article handed to me?
While thinking, I grabbed a cup of tea and a couple of delicious Danish pastries from the buffet. The organizers were at least experienced enough to give the many attendees their free lunch after the seminar and panel.
The seminar was arranged by ICOMP, a nonsense thirteen-a-dozen-spun name like “Initiative for a Competitive Digital Market Blah Blah Meaning Give Us Money Please”. Your eyes glaze over and turn elsewhere at these silly spins after a while once you see them daily. But never mind the name, they come a dime a dozen. The seminar still had an interesting topic and a free lunch to boot, which would attract good people to network with on our topics.
My first hint of cause for alarm came as one of their head lobbyists sat down beside the four of us from the Swedish Pirate Party at second row center in the large room, and I overheard the following words from Christian Engström, Member of European Parliament, as the two were exchanging a few words waiting for the seminar to begin:
— So your primary source of funding is Microsoft, then?
The next ten minutes were nothing like I had ever experienced. It was the most shameless bashing of a single company with hints and allegations that I had ever seen. In practically every sentence of the keynote, which was exclusively about how bad Google was as a company, words were snuck into the overall flow that were designed to plant ungrounded ideas in the audience’s mind.
“…in Google’s latest privacy scandal…”
“…Google made the headlines again…”
“…allegations that Google has downranked relevant search results…” (as if Microsoft gets to determine what is relevant?)
It went on and on. This was not a seminar on privacy at all. This was Microsoft-funded Google-smearing, plain and simple, and I felt my blood starting to boil. No free lunch was worth sitting down and taking this kind of language designed to smear a competitor for profit. I would not be a part of this. My name does not get to be associated with this kind of drivel.
So I made the strongest act of disapproval conceivable in the European Parliament.
I walked out on a free luxury lunch.
I whispered to my three colleageues that I won’t be a part of this, and that I’ll see them after lunch if they want to stay. I stood up, furiously threw down the stack of smear papers on the seat, and silently walked straight out, realizing outside the seminar room that my three colleagues had followed me promptly – MEP Engström and his two in-house assistants. The whole PP delegation had walked out from second row center, in a way that nobody in the audience could possibly have missed this act of complete disapproval.
Seeing the only Member of European Parliament in the audience walked out of the seminar in that strong a disapproval, one of their head lobbyists rushed out after us trying to get us in a better mood. I was furious, and since we no longer needed to politely observe silence in the seminar room, I believe I made my impressions perfectly clear to him at the time – that I considered it audacious that Microsoft, a convicted monopolist, paid big money using a covert name to carpet bomb allegations of monopolistic behavior against a competitor in this manner – that the seminar had been thoroughly falsely advertised, and that I would not have my name associated with any part of it.
I told the lobbyist that I’d be happy to discuss privacy and regulation safeguarding civil liberties, both in terms of general concepts and specific regulation. However, and I believe I made this abundantly clear, I had no interest whatsoever in taking part in a seminar about Google that was funded by Microsoft.
The four of us went on to have a nice Vietnamese lunch instead, with a delicious spicy chicken soup, probably costing one-fourth of the meal we would have had on Microsoft’s tab.
In retrospect, I wish I had recorded this drivel. It was absolutely unbelievable what they intended to get away with.
A day later, I got a mail from the head lobbyist, saying we missed a good discussion towards the end as Google representatives came on stage to discuss. He had missed my entire point – that the seminar shouldn’t have been about Google in the first place if it was paid for by Microsoft and was advertised as a general discussion on big data, profiling, identity, and privacy. If Microsoft wants to discuss Google, at least have the honesty and transparency of doing so under its own name and under an upfront seminar description.
Microsoft, I worked for you once. My name is one of the ones printed in the 25th anniversary book. I’m happy I don’t anymore. This behavior is unworthy.
UPDATE: In the discussion thread on Hacker News about this article, an interesting parallel article in The Economist surfaced, crying the exact same kind of foul over Microsoft’s Googlesmearing: they have apparently been to a very similar seminar from the same Microsoft lobby front. They talk about the same deceptive advertising of the seminar, about how the same Pamela Jones Harbour as here got a free fire range against Google, and calls it “a textbook example of how not to lobby”.
UPDATE 2: I received a mail from the lobbyist who came out of the seminar after our delegation, pointing out that he did not choose to sit beside our delegation of four, but rather, we had chosen seats beside his pre-reserved seat. Fair enough. If the article gives another impression, I’m happy to let this stand corrected. That doesn’t detract from the main point of the article.
(See also The Embedded Citizen, which is the blog of Henrik “Hax” Alexandersson, who works as an assistant for MEP Engström in the European Parliament. Quite a fitting name for that kind of blog, actually. He also blogged in Swedish about it.)