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The "Google Checkout" Dilemma: When Google Says NO!
From: David Farber <dave () farber net>
Date: Sun, 29 Mar 2009 22:17:19 -0400

Begin forwarded message:

From: Lauren Weinstein <lauren () vortex com>
Date: March 29, 2009 7:46:56 PM EDT
To: dave () farber net
Subject: The "Google Checkout" Dilemma: When Google Says NO!

         The "Google Checkout" Dilemma: When Google Says NO!


Greetings.  There are few things in life more frustrating than being
punished without explanation, appeal, or recourse.  This holds true in
life-threatening locales like Gitmo under the previous administration,
and in more prosaic situations such as Internet commerce.

Sometimes these situations could be avoided or cured with just a bit
more communications -- but absent that, even relatively simple matters
can easily fester into much bigger problems.

I was reminded of this when a major Net personage forwarded me a link
to this new write-up ( http://tinyurl.com/gcheck1 ) on Google Checkout
merchant controversies and related accusations against Google.

In a nutshell ... Google Checkout ( http://google.com/checkout )
provides a merchant account system for Internet purchases as an
alternative to eBay's vastly dominant PayPal.

Google Checkout (henceforth referred to as "GC") seems to be a well
thought out, generally well-implemented system.  Many small and large
merchants, fed up with PayPal for one of many reasons, have migrated
to GC successfully.

However, when something "goes wrong" relating to GC, some merchants
apparently find themselves suddenly cut off from their accounts
without ready explanation, recourse, appeal, or in some cases refunds,
as in the link referred to above (a woman apparently selling a
programming techniques e-book).  Unfortunately this appears to be far
from an isolated case.

A common thread I've detected in these various cases is an apparent
dispute regarding the nature of the merchandise or service being
provided by the merchant.  Obvious cases of fraud are one thing, but
some of the examples I've now found seem much more complex -- for
example, involving collections for nonprofit organizations, sales of
particular non-tangible goods or services, and so on (Google provides
an extensive list of forbidden product categories):

But sometimes there is no obvious relationship between the product
being sold and any of the verboten items -- and without a clear
explanation of why an account was terminated, merchants are left
totally in the dark.

Google -- to its credit -- wants to keep GC as "clean" a service as
possible, and accomplishing this in today's Internet world is
inevitably going to mean closing down offending accounts.  But what's
particularly perplexing regarding GC is the form letter shutdown
notices that some merchants receive, that explicitly refuse to explain
why they were terminated (citing unnamed "security reasons").  Nor do
routine mechanisms appear to exist to offer Google exculpatory
information, or for explaining misunderstandings or possible errors in
Google's analysis of the situations.

In essence, the GC shutdown notices act as prosecutor, judge, and
executioner, all in one fell swoop, seemingly explicitly without

That Google has the legal right to choose with whom it does merchant
business seems a reasonable enough premise.  But it's hard to
visualize other aspects of our lives -- particularly when real money
is involved -- where we'd be willing to accept such a one-sided

Google presumably feels (and I'm attempting to get some official
statements on this matter) that they are merely protecting their GC
service from scofflaws and lowlifes who might wish to rip off
customers, and to avoid dealing with certain highly controversial
categories of merchandise and services.  A useful goal set, but what
happens when innocents are falsely accused, again without explanation
or obvious recourse?

Is Google so confident in their processes that they view errors as
impossible?  Or are a certain number of errors viewed as the cost of
doing business, on the assumption that few upset parties would bother
to pursue the matter (e.g. in small claims court, etc.)?  Is the
attitude that given the large number of GC merchant accounts there
just isn't the time or resources to give every accused merchant a full

I do support Google's rigorously enforcing rules to protect Google
Checkout.  However, without clear explanations for account shutdown,
formal procedures for obtaining additional information and for
appeals, and in general without a basic sense of <b>fairness</b> in
such situations, innocent parties can all too easily be
mischaracterized as violators.

Even if 100% of the merchants in these cases deserved to be kicked off
of GC, the current form letter shutdown procedure seems fundamentally
unconscionable.  If nothing else it could be interpreted as arrogant,
and might even invite regulatory or legislative interventions.

I do not assert that Google should change their rules about who should
be allowed to use Google Checkout, or regarding what should or should
not be sold through the system.

However, I do feel that a significant change in the manner of
communications associated with such Google Checkout matters would be
in both Google's and the Internet communities' short and long-term
interests.  I would also suggest that my prior proposals regarding a
Google Ombudsman concept might be relevant
( http://lauren.vortex.com/archive/000510.html ).

Google is a great company with -- I truly believe -- an admirable
corporate ethic, but effective public communications continues to be a
sometimes notably weak spot in the Google milieu.  I am confident
though that Google has the ability to improve this aspect of their
corporate culture by applying the same effort to this area as they
have so successfully to the many other aspects of their brand and

Lauren Weinstein
lauren () vortex com
Tel: +1 (818) 225-2800
Co-Founder, PFIR
  - People For Internet Responsibility - http://www.pfir.org
Co-Founder, NNSquad
  - Network Neutrality Squad - http://www.nnsquad.org
Founder, GCTIP - Global Coalition
  for Transparent Internet Performance - http://www.gctip.org
Founder, PRIVACY Forum - http://www.vortex.com
Member, ACM Committee on Computers and Public Policy
Lauren's Blog: http://lauren.vortex.com
Twitter: LW1

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