Yesterday on this blog, I speculated that perhaps Google’s resistance to the DOJ subpoenas might produce market forces that create a virtuous cycle, where all of the major portals and search engines would try to outdo one another to demonstrate loyalty to us, the users, in opposing Big Brother-like snooping.
Reading through the materials more carefully, especially the letter from Google’s attorney (echoed by Battelle‘s reaction and analysis), it would seem Google’s resistance is less predicated on principle and more on protection of proprietary information for competitive reasons. (Oops, I should have had my cyncicism barometer dialed up). And now I wonder whether market forces and actions will actually lead to the opposite end than the one I described.
In order to ensure they appear less trustworthy, will folks like Yahoo! and MSN and others try to soothe us with comfortable rhetoric, telling us no “privacy” rights are at stake, all the while giving up information to the government without a fight? One can see this spin already happening, to a degree. Just read yesterday’s Search Engine Watch play-by-play relaying the comments of Yahoo and MSN folks:
In fairness to Yahoo, which handed over information –
and MSN which likely did the same — it is important to note that it is not just
spin that no privacy issues were involved with this particular data. As I
explained in the story, the information is completely divorced from any
personally identifiable data.
Let me especially stress this. Want 1 million random web sites? There’s no
privacy issue in that. The government didn’t ask for the “bad” sites or sites
that were linked with any particular activity. They just wanted a list of sites,
probably so they could do a survey.
It’s a stupid request, of course. It’s sort of like the government asking a major car
dealership to give you a list of random license plate numbers rather than the Department Of Motor Vehicles. Surely the
government can generate its own list without forcing a private company to do
How about those search requests? They are a list of searches with no user
data associated with them. If that’s a user privacy issue, then live displays
such as listed
here are a long-standing one.
Here’s a better example. Infospace — which owns the Dogpile meta search
engine — has sold raw search data to
Wordtracker for years. I have never heard of anyone concerned about the
privacy implications in that. This is because there aren’t any. You can’t see
who did a search, IP addresses, cookies, etc. It’s just a big long list of
That all sounds so reasonable, but the more I thought about it the more it troubled me. I *get* that asking for aggregated queries without personally identifiable information doesn’t violate anyone’s individual privacy. But isn’t the government’s request for this information insidious? The DOJ wants to know what we’re searching for in order to restrict us from searching for those things. Doesn’t that bother you?
I keep trying to think up analogies or hypotheticals that would illustrate the moral risk more clearly. Here’s one:
Imagine a small town in, say, Utah where the city council passes a law restricting minors from getting access to books about homosexual sex practices in libraries or bookstores. Someone challenges the law, claiming among other things that minors rarely if ever check out these books. Lawyers for the city, to prove otherwise, subpoena all of library records for a 3 month period, plus purchase records from both online and brick-and-mortar bookstores serving the town’s citizenry, to show how often such books are checked-out or purchased, but with protections to ensure no personal information is associated with the data.
That kind of effort by a government body, to get access to information about information we collectively want and consume precisely in order to restrict consumption of certain materials would trouble me. Hugely. Which is why there has been such discussion about the Patriot Act with regard to library records.
Smarter, better informed minds than mine will parse this all more carefully I hope. But, I think the essential issue at stake is the government’s attempts to gain information about the information we consume, with the further intent to restrict or regulate the information we consume. That’s a bad thing, plain and simple.