It’s not just indie artists: LA Times says Google “makes it virtually impossible to get [a human] on the phone”

If you’ve ever tried to communicate with Google, Facebook or any of the other “scale” online companies, you have experienced the phenomenon of leaderless revolution–nobody answers the phone.  But thanks to David Lazarus of the LA Times, we have a much better idea of why this is and an idea about what can be done to stop it.

It’s not just Google, though, let’s be clear.  I recently was asked by a friend to help him get a Facebook posting removed.  Now follow this–the Facebook posting was actually a reposting of a Wikipedia article about my friend which he hadn’t authorized, either.  And it used his photograph, an old picture which he hadn’t authorized either, and neither had the photographer.

I thought, this isn’t something that’s going to fit into the DMCA policy (because from my friend’s point of view it’s not really a copyright issue, more of a right of publicity issue which is not covered by the DMCA).  Silly me–I thought, better call over to Facebook and explain why it needs to come down.

Finding a telephone number for Facebook is not all that easy–and that will change with the IPO–but finding the number didn’t do any good.  The public number did not allow me to contact a soul.  There was a recording that said more or less, “Facebook is an Internet company so we don’t use telephones, we use email.”

I had the usual exchange with the DMCA bot and the sales team that tried to talk me out of taking down the offending article.  I got absolutely nowhere with these people who kept talking about DMCA and did not understand why Facebook is not protected by the DMCA for pure right of publicity claims based on misappropriation of identity (right of publicity being a largely state law area that actually grows out of defamation/misappropriation, see Nimmer, The Right of Publicity 19 Law & Contemporary Problems 203 (1954)–and for those reading along with the cases, before the knees start jerking in Santa Clara, I do understand the preemption issue but I don’t think it was present here).

It soon became apparent to me that what Facebook was really up to was to try to make it difficult for anyone to remove anything from Facebook.  Because I just happened to know someone at Facebook, I was able to get the article removed.  But the argument from Facebook was never a legal argument.  The response always was isn’t it better for your friend to be included on Facebook (and incrementally better for Facebook to have all of these people participating willingly or unwillingly).

A commercial pitch, not a legal argument.

And so they would make it difficult for anyone to contact them, and would tie you up with endless emails responding to my objections to try to wear me down.  All culminating in the classic Web 2.0 justification: “But it’s on Wikipedia!”  Meaning if it’s on Wikipedia, Facebook can use and reproduce any Wikipedia entry in its entirety.  (Which is kind of an interesting side note because I doubt seriously whether Wikipedia is letting them do that for free.)

All this will sound familiar to any independent artist who has tried to get their works removed from YouTube.  (See Ellen Seidler’s blog about her trip to DMCA hell with Google .  Google is just as bad as Facebook albeit in more sinister ways.  Indie artists (and majors for that matter) have for years assumed that no one could possibly be that rude to all of their customers and that somehow artists were being singled out for the cold shoulder from Google.

But thanks to the LA Times consumer reporter David Lazarus, we now know that it’s not just us!  It’s all part of Google’s commercial pitch to users and stockholders.  Well, not all the stockholders, just the stockholders who get one vote per share (unlike the Google insiders who get 10 votes per share).

In Mr. Lazarus’ excllent piece “Searching for a way to get a human being on the phone at Google“, Google’s profit motive becomes clear, because this is, in the end what it is all about.  Google will tell you that they are interested in products that scale–meaning that can be used by hundreds of millions of people.  What Google doesn’t say is that they want products that scale–as long as they don’t have to talk to any of the hundreds of millions of people who use these products.  Or said another way still, as long as Google can free ride on the cost of customer support by pushing that cost off onto its users and the support message boards that pick up that cost.

Google, however, doesn’t want to speak with Gillette — or with any of its millions of other users. The company makes it virtually impossible to get an actual employee or service rep on the phone.

It’s an issue that’s become increasingly common in today’s business world, especially among technology companies that seem to assume their customers are as comfortable with digital communications as they are.

Google, Facebook, Twitter — good luck getting through to anyone at each company, let alone finding a number you can call that a real person will answer. They go out of their way to keep their millions of customers at an electronic distance.

“It’s very frustrating that a multibillion-dollar company like Google will go to such lengths to keep you from talking to a human being,” [one user] said.

None of this will come as a surprise to any artist who has tried to deal with DMCA take-down notices at Google–because the only time you get their attention is when you sue them.  And as usual, the responce from Google is catch me if you can.

Google offers no apologies for its catch-us-if-you-can approach to customer service.

“We think it’s a faster and better experience,” said Andrea Freund, a company spokeswoman. “Because we have so many users, we can scan the issues users are having and determine how to fix them and make them better.”
But what if someone really, really wants to speak with a human being? Doesn’t Google, which boasts more than 1 billion unique visitors monthly and which pocketed nearly $10 billion in profit last year, have a responsibility to make itself available to customers in need?

Apparently not.

“We have 350 million Gmail users alone,” Freund said. “It’s just not feasible to offer phone support.”

Or said another way–we think you are an idiot and that you will believe that it is actually better for you if we do not let you speak to a human because it would cost us too damn much money to actually handle customer complaints the way that every other Fortune 500 company does.  But I guess talking to human for customer service is so 20th Century.

Lazarus has a great solution:

Google doesn’t want to hear [from its customers]. Or if it does, it wants to hear it only on the company’s terms.

This is unacceptable. Call me old-fashioned, but any business that specializes in providing services to millions of customers has a responsibility to be accountable to those customers. And that means being accessible.

Here’s my proposal: Any publicly listed business earning more than $100 million in annual revenue must provide the resources for customers to reach the company by phone. That means having a working number that’s actually answered by a human being.

I don’t know about the regulation part, but I do understand why Lazarus would feel that the consumer is so powerless against the Leviathan of Mountain View that the only place to get help is from the government.  I get it, I don’t think it’s the first step, but what we have discovered with Google is that they view government is an temporary inconvenience, or as former White House Internet Czar Susan Crawford might say, a barrier they can “geek around.”  So before you reject a government solution to the problem, think about who you are dealing with here.

I would also add this fact.  Google has announced to the world that it proudly “processed” five million DMCA notices last year alone.  Google gets a direct free rider advantage to delaying its DMCA “process” as long as humanly–sorry–as long as possible.  If the company is going to get the legal benefit of the DMCA safe harbor, should they also not bear the burden of being responsive to notices with human resources.

This solution is elegant and competitive–for another reason.

Freed from the cost of customer service units and compliance groups that are tasked with responding to DMCA notices, Google is consequently able to avoid a cost that is borne by its competitors on the stock exchange that still bother to offer human support for these functions.

So good news artists!  You’re not crazy, they really do plan it that way, and it’s not just you–they don’t respond to anyone.

And if you think that sounds evil, well you just don’t realize how convenient Google is making it for themselves.

I mean, for you.