Thursday, February 02, 2006

HOT Issue... Google vs Dept Of Justice US

Still hot, Even Not So Fresh from the Oven

Will Google tell George Bush about my web searches?

Charles Arthur
Thursday January 26, 2006
The Guardian

Not if it can help it; and probably not even if it can't. The search engine company is demanding that the US Department of Justice gets a court to enforce a request for one million random web addresses and records of all Google searches for a one-week period. The reason: to estimate how much pornography shows up when children go Googling.

The Bush administration's demand seems to be part of an effort to revive the 1998 Child Online Protection Act (Copa), which makes it a crime for commercial distributors of "material harmful to minors" (deemed as material appealing to the "prurient interest", including female breasts) not to protect their sites from access by minors.

However, Copa never took effect, and eventually the US Supreme Court ruled that it might be unconstitutional. Now, though, the Bush administration appears to be looking for fresh evidence that might suggest that filtering software, the preferred method suggested when Copa first failed the Supreme test, is less effective than before. That would mean showing that searches turn up porn sites not covered by filters.

But the request, with which MSN, AOL and Yahoo complied (Ask Jeeves was not asked), has got privacy shivers running up and down the internet's collective spine. Google apparently feels the same way: Nicole Wong, an associate general counsel for the company, says the company will fight the government's effort vigorously. "Google is not a party to this lawsuit, and the demand for the information is overreaching," she adds.

As Danny Sullivan noted at his SearchEngineWatch blog: "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 licence plate numbers rather than the Department of Motor Vehicles. Surely the government can generate its own list without forcing a private company to do this."

But while the list of searches and websites might be a huge amount of data, it is unlikely that any of it would lead back to you, or indeed any individual who runs a search or owns a site.

AOL, MSN and Yahoo were at pains to point out that no private data was passed on. At least, Yahoo did: "We are rigorous defenders of our users' privacy. We did not provide any personal information in response to the Department of Justice's subpoena. In our opinion, this is not a privacy issue. We complied on a limited basis and did not provide any personally identifiable information," the company told Sullivan (

Why Google Won't Give In
Chris Kraeuter and Rachel Rosmarin, 01.24.06, 6:00 AM ET
BURLINGAME, CALIF. - Microsoft has a message for consumers who use its search engine: Don't worry, your stuff is safe.

Any information the computer giant hands over as a result of a U.S. Department of Justice subpoena will contain "absolutely no personal data," according to a statement posted on a company blog over the weekend by Ken Moss, general manager of MSN Web Search. "Privacy of our customers is non-negotiable and something worth fighting to protect. We tried to strike the right balance in a very sensitive matter."

Microsoft's (nasdaq: MSFT - news - people ) assurances follow those from Time Warner's (nyse: TWX - news - people ) America Online and Yahoo! (nasdaq: YHOO - news - people ), which said much the same thing last week. So why is Google (nasdaq: GOOG - news - people ) the lone holdout?

Perhaps the company really is worried about protecting your privacy. Much more likely: It is worried about protecting itself.

The federal government's requests--which amount to a list of 1 million random Web addresses and a week's worth of search queries--is supposed to help the government build a case that Internet porn is readily accessible to minors, thus creating a need for its once-denied Child Online Protection Act (COPA).

Google's claim that the subpoenas could reveal trade secrets is up for debate. Aitan Goelman, partner with the Washington, D.C.-based law firm of Zuckerman Spaeder, says he doubts the data the government is looking for would reveal how Google executes its searches. But he adds that a clever competitor could sift through the reports and might "be able to get from Point A to Point B and have insight into Google's methodologies."

It's more likely that Google is worried about the results of its search queries and not the technology that powers them. The compromise the Department of Justice has worked out with Google's rivals calls for the search engines to let the government see how often certain search terms were used, but won't let it look up specific Internet Protocol addresses to what individuals looked for.

That alone could prove embarrassing enough for Google. A public disclosure of exactly how much pornography is on the Internet and how often people look for it--the two data points that will result from fulfilling the government's subpoena--could serve to make the Internet look bad. And Google, as its leading search engine, could look the worst.

None of the search engines make a full disclosure of how much porn users are looking at. When America Online lists its most popular searches, for instance, porn references are scrubbed out. But Nielsen/NetRatings says that porn sites attracted 38 million unique viewers in December--or a quarter of all Internet surfers.

Google and its competitors all benefit from porn sites, which help generate search queries and page views. But Google is the only portal company that makes nearly all of its revenue from click-through advertising. Restricting porn and porn advertising--the likely aim of COPA's sponsors--could hurt Google disproportionately.

And filtering in general would also hurt Google more than its competitors. The Google brand is built on the notion that the engine gives users the clearest picture of the Web, without playing favorites. Restricting content in any way could hurt Google's carefully burnished image, its 60% market share for search queries and its share price.

Don’t hide; protect kids
Google should definitely release the information. It would be a different story if no precedent were set by Yahoo and MSN, but since they have disclosed their information, why shouldn’t Google? Do they have something to hide?
The Internet is such an easy tool for everyone, especially kids, to get onto Web sites that we consider trashy or adult. Who knows what Web sites the kids are getting into?
If Google is doing things “by the book,” then they have nothing to fear.
— Jim Wang, Rockford,Community Viewpoints Board

HOT Issue... Google vs Dept Of Justice US


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