In a performance punctuated with all the hallmarks of paranoia, Australian Communications Minister Stephen Conroy laid into internet giant Google earlier this week, suggesting that the approach taken by their chief executive, Eric Schmidt, is a "bit creepy".
Google hit back yesterday, saying that Conroy had singled it out as the poster boy for everything bad about the internet because it had stood up to the government's controversial policy on internet filtering.
Speaking before a Senate committee hearing late on Monday evening, Conroy described Google as having committed the "single greatest breach in the history of privacy" by deliberately collecting private wireless data while taking pictures for its "Street View" mapping service.
He also had sharp words for Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, claiming that the latter had a "complete disregard" for users' privacy. He went on to berate Zuckerburg, who, he said, broke up with a girlfriend and then set up a website containing all the photos from his yearbook so that he and his friends could rank the girls according to their looks.
However, it was for Google that Conroy reserved his greatest venom, accusing it of deliberately collecting private wireless data while taking pictures for its Street View mapping service. He said: "It was actually quite deliberate ... The computer program that collected it was designed to collect this information".
Challenged to say whether he disputed Google's own assertion that fragments of personal data had been gathered in error, he added: "Yes. I'm saying they wrote a piece of code designed to do it."
Google Australia head of engineering Alan Noble suggested that this was yet further evidence that relations between the world’s largest web company and Australia's communications minister had broken down entirely. He said: "Right now, he's decided that filtering's all about Google, for some reason.
"Singling out companies like Google or Facebook is distracting. It's not about Google, it's about you, me, all Australians."
Although Google had been talking with Senator Conroy about the proposed filtering policy for two years, these talks had recently collapsed. Noble explained: "Right now, no, I don't think he is listening."
In a further display of non-paranoid listening, Senator Conroy was also out and about explaining his point of view in an online interview on the Sydney Morning Herald’s Why on Earth? programme.
To a clearly incredulous interviewer, he explained that the filter would be "100% accurate", with "no under-blocking and no over-blocking" - and take "just one-seventieth of the blink of the eye". Google’s filtering policy was more wide-ranging than what the Australian government is proposing. What Google is saying is "trust us, we know best".
In response to a recent poll of 45,000 Australian citizens, that showed 96 per cent public opposition to the filter, Conroy complained of "an organised group in the online world ... spreading misinformation".
In an attempt to introduce some balance to the argument, he explained: "If people are going to spread the argument that the internet should be completely unregulated by governments, we don’t agree." This claim may not be entirely unrelated to a claim made in previous years, that Senator Conroy was later forced to withdraw, that those opposed to internet filtering were supporters of child porn.
Banning material that was refused classification is, he added, "not considered to be censorship of free speech". ®
According to Wikipedia, "Paranoia is a thought process heavily influenced by anxiety or fear, often to the point of irrationality and delusion. Paranoid thinking typically includes persecutory beliefs".
In the case of Conroy, who has been attacked in recent months by Yahoo, Google, the Australian opposition and the US State Department - not to mention members of his own civil service - over his plans for internet filtering, paranoia may be the least irrational way to go.