Monday, January 30, 2006

Google and Big Government

The London Review of Books has a great piece on the rise and rise of Google (along with the New Yorker, the LRB remains the pinnacle of erudite and wittily refined writing; one dreams of being able to write that well, and having the time to practice it).

The article neatly describes the Google approach as being driven by nerdy grad-student "wouldn't it be cool if we could do this" iconoclasm. But the author worries about the consequences of the company's policy of indefinitely storing information on user searches.

Given that Google's entire business model is based on individualising advertising to the preferences of its users, this practice is understandable. But the LRB piece questions whether, in the future when the screws go on to justify the company's rapidly expanding share price, there might be pressure to use that information in ways not entirely consistent with the "Don't Be Evil" motto.

In fact, this issue is already being put to the test, as Google fights a subpoena from the US Justice Department to provide information on a week's worth of search requests, issued as part of a government attempt to justify an anti-pornography law called the Child Online Protection Act.

Yahoo, MSN and AOL have already complied with the request after it was agreed that they could supply aggregated information which wouldn't identify particular individuals. Google, however, has so far resisted.

Other writers have pointed out that Google's attitude is partly a PR exercise to show that users can trust it, rather than purely a matter of principle (the company has also recently accepted Chinese government censorship restrictions in order to gain greater market share in that country) . However, I am in full agreement with their reasons cited for refusing the subpoena - that it is irrelevant, burdensome and overreaching.

It's reasonable to expect companies, including internet providers, to cooperate with criminal investigations. However, here there has been no crime committed, and the whole exercise seems more about extending the culture of surveillance.

The proposed law is intended to "protect" children by requiring users of certain internet sites to go through a registration process. It was originally stuck down by the Supreme Court under freedom of speech considerations.

This is a classic case of the double standard about big government. Conservative administrations and their supporters view, say, universal health and dental care for children as creeping socialism, and the Bush administration has sought to reverse or weaken environmental regulations which are meant to protect everybody.

Yet it's considered acceptable to embark on unwieldy efforts to monitor the legal behaviour of adults, and tell legitimate businesses how they must operate, with no evidence that this will in any way help or protect children or anyone else. As usual, Slate is good on the numerous reasons why such a law would be both excessive and ineffective.

PR-driven grandstanding or not, Google's attitude in this case is a worthy one. But for the future, look to some pressure on them to back off keeping so much identifying information on file. Part of not being evil is not permitting that you be used for evil purposes.

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1 comment:

ashok said...

This is an issue of small significance, far smaller, but it might give us a clue as to whether Google is clueless, or devoted to the almighty dollar or wanting to become a monopolistic tyrant, or none of those things.