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Corporations as Rights Guarantors?

Interesting discussion all over the web today about the Government’s anti-pornography crusade and related demand for information from Google by the DOJ.

Further, interesting speculation on Search Engine Watch that MSN and Yahoo complied, at least to a limited extent, with the government’s request.

I think Google’s position is commendable. Their non-compliance will only bolster their "good Google" image. Conversely, it’s possible that if people pay attention to this and it turns into a bigger issue, MSN and Yahoo! will suffer in the minds of some consumers — even though it appears they released no "personal" information.

Both Yahoo and MSN are already tainted, in that they have collaborated with the Chinese government’s efforts to repress political speech. This latest incident reinforces the impression that they’d not put up much of a fight with any government when it comes to information they may have about us users, both in the collective and individual sense.

Ironically, maybe eventually interestingly, this could create a competitive dynamic that is helpful. If Google is consistent in its apparent protection of its users, it should consistently gain loyalty from us (that, of course, requires a big and as of yet unproven assumption: that we collectively actually care about our rights). If Yahoo! and MSN continue to suffer by comparison, they may do more to try to show their bona fides. One way to highlight their efforts would be to pick high profile, important fights with various governments to protect their users rights.

Newspapers, and some other media companies, have long done this, both to advance reportorial privileges and First Amendment principles, but also because they know it’s good marketing. When they fight off government subpoenas, they look like they’re fighting for the little guy, against the big bad government. (One could argue that at least that used to be the case, with respect to things like the Pentagon Papers; maybe most Americans no longer think that in the wake of Judy Miller).

In this age of increasingly bold uses of executive power, including admitted wiretapping and monitoring of US citizens conversations without a warrant and in defiance of the law, could corporations like Google, Yahoo!, and MSN end up being a key wall of protection against unwanted and unwarranted attempts to snoop on us? All incented by competition to be the best "protector" of our online rights?

It’s frightening that it could come to this. I’m glad to see corporations act righteously, as Google appears to have done here. But I don’t want to have to rely on the power of market forces and profit incentives to secure our fundamental constitutional rights.

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