Google’s senseless squabble over $761

I recently found this Huffington Post story on Aaron Greenspan’s long-running small-claims lawsuit against Google. The story details Google’s appeal of the $761 judgment and is actually a follow-up to an earlier story about the original lawsuit.

Aaron runs a small company called Think Computer. At the time of the lawsuit Think Computer owned three domain names with Web sites showing Google AdSense ad banners. One of these domain names was for a product still in development. Everything went just swimmingly until the late morning of 2008-12-09, when Aaron received this ominous message upon logging into his company’s AdSense account:

Your AdSense account for this login is currently disabled. We recommend checking your email inboxes for any messages we may have sent you regarding your account status. […]

The only reason Aaron ever got for the disabling of Think Computer’s AdSense account was that Think Computer’s participation in AdSense “posed a significant risk to our AdWords advertisers.”

Aaron sued Google and was awarded the $721 owed to his company, plus $40 in court costs, in a hearing on 2009-03-02. The judge had some choice sarcastic words for Google’s paralegal, Stephanie Milani (this being small claims court, Google was barred from sending a full-fledged attorney to represent them):

I don’t think I have the power here in Palo Alto small claims court to make you reinstate his account, but I think you owe this young man $721. I think there might be money in Google’s treasury for that.

Given that that amount represented the going price for 2.2 shares of the company’s stock at the time of the hearing (trading closed at US$327.16 per share), I think the judge made a more than reasonable conclusion.

Later that week Aaron gets a request from Ms. Milani on behalf of Google for the taxpayer ID number for Think Computer, with the explanation that the accounting department needed it to write the check. All seems well and good. Except, Aaron never gets the check, but instead a form stating “[his] case had been ‘APPEALED’ to the superior court.'”

Yes. A $761 judgment against a company with a $132.72 billion market capitalization. Appealed. I mean, this is not McDonald’s getting sued for millions over one too many cups of hot coffee. For Google, this type of amount is quite literally equivalent to pocket change; the percentage is so small I’m not going to even bother doing the calculation.

Fast forward to 2009-05-22, the appeal hearing. Only now does Google reveal the exact reasons Think Computing’s AdSense account was disabled to Aaron: use of the forbidden phrase “pick a link” (which Aaron implies is mentioned nowhere in Google’s AdSense terms of service) and a technical non-compliance with the AdSense terms of service, in that one of the three domains was not actually an active Web site.

Aaron points out that the AdSense for Domains program was closed to the public for years, yet was opened up to the public only two days after Think Computer’s AdSense account was disabled. All Google really had to do was let Think Computer sign up for AdSense for Domains from the beginning.

Aaron hints that the appeal only came after he wrote the original article for the Huffington Post. If so, shame on you, Google, for an absolutely disgraceful handling of negative press. A better move would have been to either quietly pay the judgment. Even issuing a press release denying any wrongdoing but also stating the company is willing to abide by the judge’s ruling.

Even more damning is the line of questioning Google’s attorney engaged in at the appeal hearing (a bit long, but worth reading):

“What are these links on the site?” Google’s lawyer asked, referring to a printout of the web site in question that was part of my stack of paper.

“They’re links to essays I’ve written,” I responded.

“Do you charge for these essays?” the lawyer asked.

“No,” I said. Google’s lawyer tried again.

“Does your company charge for anything?”

“Yes, it charges for its products and services,” I said.

“But it doesn’t charge for these essays,” he half-asked.

“No, the company didn’t write the essays. I did, and sometimes I write essays for the Huffington Post, but I’m not compensated.”

“Do you sell essays to college students?” the lawyer asked.

“What?” I asked him, confused.

“You sell pre-written essays for college students, right? Like term papers?”

“No!” I said, finally realizing where he was going. “I don’t know where you would have even gotten that idea.” Little did he know that he had hit a sore spot, since I had recently written a book about education at America’s “top schools” and the many problems therein, cheating among them.

Though at that point I should have asked him how often he beat his wife, I was too shocked to think of it. Google has more access to information about people than virtually any company on the planet, yet despite its vast resources, it found it more prudent to fabricate disparaging innuendo about me before a judge. The sole purpose was to damage my credibility.

This type of covert badgering of the opposing party in a lawsuit is absolutely disgraceful on Google’s part. I’d like to know how this qualifies as “not evil” from a company which has a motto of “Don’t be evil.” Aaron has a suggestion for a replacement motto, which contains a profanity but can be paraphrased as “don’t be jerks.”

Google would actually gain some of my respect back if they issued a press release publicly stating “don’t be evil” is no longer the corporate motto in light of events over the past few years. While it would sadden me that the new, publicly-traded Google can’t hope not to be evil anymore, the candor and honesty of a large corporation would be a huge change from the mountains of PR double-speak and blah-blah-blah that usually fill the press releases of companies that have been Caught Screwing Up.

(All dollar amounts are US dollars.)

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