Friday, January 27, 2006


This isn't a topical blog. Well, except when I write about Civ IV, in which case you're treated to a virtually real-time explanation of my activities. But in general I will think about something, it'll sort of percolate for a week or so, I'll forget about it, I'll start writing a post, and several days later throw it up. This isn't a big deal when I'm talking about a concert or a book I read, but I get the feeling it doesn't lend itself well to current news events. Anything I share will be out of date and quite possibly irrelevant by the time it goes up. Any day now I'll probably post my recommendation on whether to vote for Bush or Kerry.

With that out of the way, let's talk about Google!

First, I must admit I am biased. I love Google. From the day I found out about them they're the only engine I've used, simply because their results are more useful than anyone else's. The more I learn the more I like them: I appreciate their culture, the wonderful way they treat their employees, their simple and flat corporate hierarchy, their fun and quirky holiday doodles, and their amazing stream of new products. I love the way things are in "beta" for over a year, to the point you don't even think about it any more, until one day they're suddenly official and even better than before. When I left my prior employment, they were the first company I applied to, and the only one who actually sent me a rejection letter (later rescinded, but that's another story, and in any case I deeply appreciated the courtesy).

On the other hand, I hate invasions of privacy and John Ashcroft, so you can guess where I'm going with this.

Before that, though, we should probably clarify a few misconceptions I've heard a lot. First, this isn't exactly a privacy case; the government is requesting a list of terms searched, results returned, and pages on the Internet. Google retains information that could potentially link those searches back to individuals, but the government isn't looking for them. Secondly, Google isn't opposing the subpoena on privacy grounds; rather, they are arguing that the subpoena would cause undue hardship and that it could reveal trade secrets.

These clarifications aside, however, make no mistake: while this particular battle is being fought with issues of scope and authority, the underlying issue is privacy. The tension here is about what much data the government can collect from private entities. Obviously, there is a sliding scale involved; more information needs to be shared if there's an imminent threat facing the nation than some midlevel bureaucrat wanting information on his political enemies. Everyone watching this scene wonders, will the government ever see my Google searches? This may range from an embarassing thought (now they'll know about that rash) to alarming (I KNEW I shouldn't have done that research paper on modern Islam).

As I said, for years I've only used Google, and after learning that AOL, Microsoft, and Yahoo! all rolled over for the subpoena, I'm more committed to them than ever. Again, there's that question: suppose the DOJ wants a list of all IP addresses who searched for "parts to make a nuclear bomb." Now, I happen to just be curious what kind of information is available, but I'd rather not have to explain that to the FBI. Based on past behavior I expect to get better protection from Google than any other search engine.

Now, don't think that everything you type into Google is safe. The company's terms of use clearly state that they can and will turn records over for lawful legal purposes. If the FBI determined that an individual was in an al Qaeda and wanted to learn what he was thinking of doing, Google would most likely turn over the relevant logs. If you're seriously concerned about the possibility of being tracked, use an anonymizer, or your neighbor's unsecured wireless access.

I guess I look at this situation the same way an NRA member looks at a bill banning automatic guns. The typical NRA member doesn't own a machine gun any more than the typical Google user looks for porn. But he does have a hunting rifle, and he knows that as long as AK-47s are legal, nobody will try to take his deer shooter. In a similar way, by holding the line on a relatively harmless invasion of its records, Google is protecting against future aggressive surveillance, the kind that could turn this nation into an electronic police state. Google has no interest in being a research arm of the government like the NSA, they just want to write software and change the world. I for one am cheering them on.

(Oh, two final clarifications. The Bush administration is pursuing this, but don't be confused, the original [bad] law was signed by President Clinton and is one of the big reasons why I don't like him except in comparison to our current leader. COPA, the Child Online Protection Act, was been invalidated by the Supreme Court and this battle is attempting to revive it. Secondly, the administration is always very careful to use the words "children" and "pornography" together when talking about this issue, leading casual observers to believe that this bill aims either to protect children from online smut or to oppose online child pornography. It does nothing in regards to the latter; that is already the most illegal thing there is and there are plenty of tools to fight it. Nor does it exactly do the former. The heart of the bill is to forbid web sites from making "indecent" content "accessible to minors." The Court was absolutely right in striking this law down because it is too broad. Remember that a minor is practically anyone under age 18; it would therefore make it illegal for a 16 year old to research information on birth control or sexually transmitted diseases or whatever else Alberto Gonzales decides is "indecent." And the only mechanism in wide use for determining someone is an adult is to use a credit card. This is both laughably ineffective and ominously chilling. Ineffective because many teens have a debit or credit card held jointly with their parents, and even if not they know where their mom's purse is. Chilling because people don't like to provide information that can be traced back to them. Do I want to leave behind a record for the time I wanted to learn more about chlymidia? And to I really trust some website to use my card for identification purposes only? Adults with legitimate reasons to pursue content on the sites will be scared off and so a great benefit of the Internet will die. Worst of all, the Bush administration is chasing down this broken law instead of pursuing the remedy actually suggested by the court of providing filters parents can use to control their children's browsing. Have any of you seen how well Google's "Safe Search" works? If I was in charge, I'd be welcoming Google as a provider of useful new technology and not fighting them to rescue a bad law.)

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