Sony needs a common-sense czar

Three years after Sony was caught loading rookits onto CDs, the company is now spying on children. Didn't execs think someone might get mad?

Greg Sandoval Former Staff writer
Greg Sandoval covers media and digital entertainment for CNET News. Based in New York, Sandoval is a former reporter for The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. E-mail Greg, or follow him on Twitter at @sandoCNET.
Greg Sandoval
3 min read

With so many czars running around trying to solve the nation's problems in tech, auto and drugs, perhaps Sony should consider hiring a common-sense czar.

Is there any major consumer company around that seems to understand basic customer relations less than Sony? Isn't rule No.1 in the CR manual, "Don't spy on customers?" If so, then rule 1-A must be: "Take extra care to avoid spying on customers' children."

The latest example of Sony's disconnect with the masses came this week when the company's music division was fined for surreptitiously collecting information on children under 13-years old.

On Thursday, Sony agreed to pay $1 million to the Federal Trade Commission for collecting information on 30,000 children without obtaining parental consent. According to the Associated Press, Sony violated the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act when it collected the data from hundreds of fan sites, including those of such musical acts as Kelly Clarkson, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera.

Sony representatives declined to comment.

Sony's growing list of scandals raises the question of whether anyone at the conglomerate has an ounce of public relations savvy. If they don't, the company should find someone fast and that person's mission should be to smack down overly zealous marketing types who come up with lamebrain ideas like this one.

Or how about the one for last year's promotional party for the PlayStation 2 game God of War II that turned into an international embarrassment for Sony. In keeping with the video game's Greek mythology theme, comely women were hired to prance around topless and feed grapes to partygoers as part of the "theatrical dramatization." If that wasn't over the top enough, the centerpiece of the festivities was a butchered goat that was dressed up to look like the animal's entrails were falling out.

Across the world, animal activists howled and critics blasted the company's "bad taste." Sony apologized and yes, returned the goat carcass to the butcher. (I'm not kidding, that was their response).

Then there was the company's supreme blunder, which also came from the music division.

Before Sony, even some hardcore techies were unfamiliar with rootkits. Now, the two are synonymous. In 2005, Sony loaded MediaMax CD 3 and Extended Copy Protection (XCP) software on music CDs to help boost copy prevention. The software loaded a rootkit malware onto the PC of anyone who loaded the discs. Rootkits are programs designed to hijack control of a computer.

Texas' attorney general filed suit against the company and accused it of loading spyware onto computers. Class action suits were also filed in New York and California. The fallout lasted years.

The rootkit debacle makes this latest child-spying case all the more mind-boggling. Even if you give Sony the benefit of doubt and discount the possibility the company is evil, then what are you left with? Yes, that's right: incompetence.

I have met a lot of smart people from Sony and I have to believe that some of them realize the company is developing a nasty reputation as an enemy of consumer privacy.