Wednesday, January 25, 2006

With heroes like these, we're in trouble--UPDATED

Google the words "hypocrisy.” What, you can’t? It’s been banned? —Before civil libertarians exhaust themselves praising the stand by Google to oppose subpoenas from the Big Brothers in Washington, a note of caution. In the words of W. S. Gilbert, “things are seldom what they seem.” Everyone was agog on learning that the company, born in a Stanford engineering dorm, that has a product almost universally acclaimed as indispensable, refused demands by the Justice Department to turn over search material so it could gather evidence for a court battle over a child pornography law. Three other companies, America Online, Microsoft and Yahoo, negotiated some limits and then handed over the information. Google refused. Everyone cheered. Why?

The government request was for what URLs people were asking for and not who the people were. None of the search engines were asked to identify customers. The government wanted to know how many times you (or rather, your children) put in an innocent URL request and got back filth. It did not ask who put in the request and saw the filth. They also asked for one million randomly selected web addresses. That might help them identify the owners of the sites but not who clicked their way there.

Unfortunately, the Bush Administration’s record on civil liberties is appalling and no one in their right minds trusts them. Clearly, the next subpoena could go further and ask how many people logged on www. and got dirty pictures and who those little devils were. [That actually happened until someone put a stop to it and now you get, well, the White House.] Slippery slope and all that. But that’s a different argument. Moreover, Google’s concerns were less a question of customer privacy than trade secrets. Lots of people would love to know the algorithms Google uses to track down, oh say, the more than 1.84 million references to “Stepford Wives,” in .06 seconds, or the 6.94 million references to naked pictures of Paris Hilton in 011 seconds [I’m not making that up, and don’t bother], and the information demanded in the subpoena would compromise that, Google feared. And what a wonderful public relations position to be in: you look like a hero and our competitors look like schmucks.

Now, it seems, the company that promised it would do no evil [company motto], did agree to some evil. It agreed to ban certain “sensitive” terms from its Chinese search engines, oh, things like Falun Gong, the spiritual movement, and Taiwan independence. According to a Google lawyer [who else?], "In order to operate from China, we have removed some content from the search results available on in response to local law, regulation or policy. While removing search results is inconsistent with Google's mission, providing no information (or a heavily degraded user experience that amounts to no information) is more inconsistent with our mission." How about telling the Chinese to bugger off? I thought that was supposed to be consistent with its supposed mission.

Sources in the company said he decision was the result of intense conversation within the company. Apparently, not intense enough. And how did Google report Google: According to the one report at
"The main story on the news site is about the resumption of direct flights between China and Taiwan. There is a lot about a visit by the Saudi King and more discussion of the toxic spill which poisoned a river in north-east China but no, there's no mention of this story about Google. I've been trying all day."

-- Jane Macartney, Beijing correspondent for The Times, finds the first sign of Google's complicity in Chinese censorship -- the omission of any news reporting that complicity
It also won’t do e-mail or blogging in China. Wouldn’t want the officials to get upset and e-mail and blogs are hard to control. Wouldn’t want to tinker with the ridiculous price of its stock either.

[Photo: Google Founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. BBC]


Bill Thomasson said...

I have no independent information on what the government is asking for, but what I read in the newspapers states that it is all the search terms used in one week plus one million random e-mail addresses (presumably of customers). Since e-mail addresses can easily be linked to individuals, that latter request clearly poses a potential threat to privacy -- which is why Senator Leahy is asking the Justice Department what steps to protect individual privacy are being taken.

Bill Thomasson

Joel Shurkin said...

My reading is they asked for web addresses, not e-mail. I added that. If anyone thinks I'm offbase, let me know, please.