Facebook nemesis sues Google (and wins)
Milks Mountain View for $761
After claiming he invented Facebook, Aaron Greenspan now says he has successfully sued Google. At a Northern California court earlier this week, Mark Zuckerberg's ex-Harvard classmate won $761 from the world's largest ad broker.
Greenspan made headlines back in the fall of 2007 and the spring of 2008 after claiming that he created Facebook at Harvard - not Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and not the founders of ConnectU, who recently won a $60 million settlement in suing Zuckerberg and company for allegedly copying their idea.
One of those Greenspan headlines appeared on The Register. And after reading this headline, Greenspan declined to speak with us about his Google suit. But he details the kerfuffle in a recent piece on The Huffington Post.
Famously, Greenspan has written a tome entitled Authoritas: One student's Harvard admissions and the founding of the Facebook era, in which he claims to set the Zuckerberg record straight. He hoped to advertise the book via Google search ads. But Google wouldn't let him post ads against searches that included the word Facebook. Facebook, Google told him, is a trademark registered to Facebook.
So Greenspan filed a petition with the US Patent and Trademark Office, claiming prior use and accusing Zuckerberg and Facebook of fraud. He suspects that Facebook lobbied Google to keep him from serving ads on Facebook keywords.
The petition is still pending.
In the meantime, Greenspan signed up for the other side of Google's advertising equation, AdSense, which allowed him to post ads on his own site. At least for a while. In early December, the Mountain View Chocolate Factory summarily canceled his AdSense account, claiming his membership in the program "posed a significant risk to our AdWords advertisers."
Such language is often used when Google suspects AdSensers of click fraud. And apparently, Greenspan was serving ads from a so-called parked domain - a site that includes nothing but ads. Though this is par for the course on Google's scam-enabling AdSense for Domains operation, it's verboten on the ad broker's primary AdSense network.
But in typical fashion, Google did not give a reason for the termination. With its terms of service, Google reserves the right to axe AdSense members for "any reason." And this happens often, particularly when click fraud is suspected.
Google's 'Potemkin Village'
Greenspan attempted to discuss the matter with Google, not realizing that such a thing is close to impossible. Google does (some) customer service for advertisers and even less for everyone else.
"With undoubtedly hundreds of employees working on advertising alone, all of them completely unreachable except in heavily scripted contexts, Google's amazing money machine was starting to look a bit more like the type of Potemkin Village the parents of the company's founders had fled decades before," Greenspan writes.
Eventually, he did locate a real person. But after this real person reiterated that Google's ToS say it can bounce AdSensers at any time, Greenspan walked into a Santa Clara County courthouse and filed a civil small-claims suit for $721 - the amount Google owed him when his account was shut down.
Three months on, he stood before a Palo Alto judge and went toe-to-toe with a Google paralegal. The paralegal repeated - yet again - that Google's terms of service specified that the company could terminate accounts for any reason. But she refused to say why Greenspan's account was canceled. It's Google's standard stance. And the judge was less than convinced - according to Greenspan.
"But you couldn't terminate my account because of the color of my eyes, could you? I have brown eyes. You couldn't terminate my account because of that," Greenspan says the judge said. "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."
In the end, the judge told Google to fork over $761, including $40 for court costs. And according to Greenspan, the paralegal protested. She insisted that the $721 had already been returned to those who had recently advertised on Greenspan's site, and she asked: "What if everyone whose account was canceled sued Google?"
Greenspan says that everyone should - at least "until Google changes its policies to become more transparent, which might also reassure skeptics that AdWords and AdSense, which have oddly limited reporting capabilities, aren't just two sides of the same ponzi scheme."
He argues that "terminating [AdSense] accounts for 'posing significant risk' just when they started to earn significant amounts of money seemed like a great way for Google to cut accounting liabilities in a difficult economic climate" and that "Google had gone to great lengths (including eliminating the ability to view account records) to make it difficult to dispute anything."
Yes, Google's reporting is limited - as is its customer service. And considering that the company now controls such an enormous swath of the online ad market, it should indeed open up its preternaturally closed money machine. As it stands, Google has the power to move cash to and fro without scrutiny from the outside world. We've pointed this out. As have others.
But Google is also obligated to fight click fraud. And Greenspan admitted breaking the rules on parked domains.
He has a point. And he doesn't. But he's very happy. "I couldn't help but to smile in front of the judge," he says. ®