This story is part of , celebrating a quarter century of industry tech and our role in telling you its story.
Editor’s note: As part of, we’re publishing a a series of guest columns from former CNET leaders and editors. See Elinor’s bio below.
In 1994 I was a reporter at IDG News Service, for print magazines like InfoWorld and Macworld, covering Microsoft, IBM and Oracle — as well as the World Wide Web (which had fewer than 3,000 sites at the time). Whenlaunched in 1996 I watched with awe. It changed the business of journalism, pioneering online news at a time when print was still king. Little did I know I’d be working there 10 years later.
Starting in the mid- to late-’90s tech news went from being relegated to the back page of the business section to spawning its own glamorous industry. I left IDG to work for the fastest-growing magazine ever in the US, The Industry Standard, which was a victim of the very dot-com hubris it was covering. It folded in 2001 after the collapse of the first internet bubble, and I jumped to the safety of a traditional media company, Reuters. I survived layoffs there by taking a stint as a foreign correspondent in Lisbon, Portugal. When it was time to come back to San Francisco, I landed at CNET, the company that had weathered the storm and become a tech media powerhouse.
I started there in 2005 with arguably the hottest beat: internet companies, primarily rising star Google, and Yahoo, which was losing the internet search battle. I’d met Google co-founder Sergey Brin in 1999 when he gave me a desk-side demo of the simple and fast Google search site. By the mid-aughts, the company had come a long way, going public in 2004. The hugely popular Google search was raking in ad revenue, but the fact that Google knew all of our web searches and the content of Gmails had some people worried about privacy risks. I decided that for my first big feature in my new job I’d do a deep dive into Google’s services to see if the concerns were justified. The resulting article — published Aug. 3, 2005, under the headline Google balances privacy, reach — would be the high-water mark of my journalism career. It certainly wasn’t a wash for Google, either. The company’s extreme reaction to my story prompted widespread criticism, led to a mini backlash and served as a case study in how not to deal with the media over perceived bad press.
Here’s how the story came together, and how it played out from my perspective.
After I pitched the story to my editor, Jim Kerstetter, I spent a month researching and reporting the ins and outs of Google’s products and policies, trying to understand what data the company collected and how that info was used. One criticism that’d been leveled at the company was its cavalier attitude toward complaints from people haunted by compromising personal details exposed by its massive search engine. Such data included infractions committed by minors, or cases where defendants were later exonerated. Eric Schmidt’s response — he was Google’s CEO at the time — was that Google was merely a conduit, and that websites listing the information were responsible for deletion requests. As I was starting to write the article, News Editor Scott Ard stopped by my desk. With a mischievous glint in his eye, he suggested that I google Schmidt to see what types of information I could find.
So I did. My story opened with a rundown of things that a short Google search had revealed about Schmidt, such as his net worth, his home town, his fundraiser for Al Gore that Elton John performed at, and his trip to Burning Man. The day after the article was published, Ard got a call from a top corporate communications spokesman at Google complaining that the article was unfair and violated Schmidt’s privacy. He demanded that we remove it. When editors refused, the spokesman said that as a result, Google wouldn’t be talking to CNET for a year.
What a way to start a new beat! I was three months into my new job and had alienated the main company I was covering. Ard, Kerstetter and Editor-in-Chief Jai Singh gave me their full support, but I wondered how I was going to do my job. My reporting was definitely hindered; every Google story I wrote thereafter had this line: “Google did not return calls and emails seeking comment for this story.”
After about three weeks of being ghosted, we decided it was time to let readers know why Google wasn’t commenting. We added a disclaimer that said Google had a one-year ban on talking to CNET because of privacy concerns with the earlier article. It didn’t take long for reporters at other publications to get wind of the blacklist and start covering it.
Two months into the ban, Google did an about-face. I never learned why. A spokesman called me to offer an interview with Schmidt, about an announcement Google was making on how its search index was three times larger than Yahoo’s. I was forbidden to discuss anything but the news. I agreed, and within days the Google spokesman called me and put Schmidt on the phone for the interview. It was awkward and surreal to be talking with the tech mogul who despised me, acting as if nothing had happened. My article, “Google to Yahoo: Ours is bigger,” ran on Sept. 28, 2005. The relationship with Schmidt remained rocky for years.
The world has changed a lot since then, though many of the issues with technology and privacy remain. For instance,gave European Union citizens the “right to be forgotten.” Meanwhile, the rest of the world’s information remains indefinitely indexed, at least for now. Maybe time and the aging of the internet itself will render some of this moot. As I was writing this, I clicked on the links in that fateful article for which CNET was blacklisted. Nearly all the links are now broken.
Elinor Mills worked as a senior reporter at CNET from 2005 until 2012, covering Google and cybersecurity. Now she’s senior vice president of content and media strategy at Mission North, where she works with tech companies and is a co-lead on the agency’s Trust Practice.