January 20, 2006

Google, Subpoena, and Privacy

[I wrote this as a contribution to the discussion on Dave Farber's mailing list, but I might as well shout to the wind here, as it may not make the moderation cut. The best documentation I've seen is Gary Price's summary at Blog.SearchEngineWatch.com, and their coverage]

Let's take a deep breath and step back for a minute, and recall that this all started from a statistics professor's bright idea of how to design a survey of search engines and measuring how many porn sites are in the average results. It's not Big Brother, NSA Echelon, Total Information Awareness, or any sort of attempt to snoop on individuals. The government narrowed the request down to a sample of one million URLs [DEL]and "a random sampling of one million search queries submitted to www.google.com on a given day" (page 14, McElvain Declaration file). That's it.[DEL] [CORRECTION UPDATE - it was brought to my attention that this was part of the negotiations, but seems to have been dropped - CORRECTION UPDATE]. And it's hedged with protective orders and presumably whatever non-disclosure agreements are necessary.

If I were to be utterly cynical, I'd conjecture that Google decided to make a big noise over this relatively trivial request as a PR strategy to counter the increasing criticism of its omnivorous database collection practices. Remember, there's fever-swamping wolf-criers who will hype an error in government website cookie settings into attacks on privacy laws, or a minor change in obscure harassment provisions to be the end of anonymous blog comment posting. So marketing a storyline of "Google Stands Up To THE FEDS To Protect YOUR PRIVACY" will be quite appealing to a certain mentality, even if the effects are insignificant in practice. Essentially, Google can't lose here. If the subpoena is quashed, it's a big hero for beating back Government Snooping. If not, Google gets to loudly divert attention to the terrible, terrible injustice of being forced by men with guns to produce some search strings for a survey. This will probably inoculate Google against much critical examination in the press, since it will point to how it Stood Up For Freedom.

Now, there's a way in which this could be consciousness-raising, regarding the privacy implications of the huge amount of personal data collected by search engines. But such examination would require journalists going beyond the PR-chow they'll be fed. And sadly, I doubt that will happen.

[CORRECTION UPDATE - it was brought to my attention that the narrowing to "a random sampling of one million search queries submitted to www.google.com on a given day" was part of the negotiations, but seems to have been dropped - CORRECTION UPDATE]. By Seth Finkelstein | posted in google | on January 20, 2006 09:12 PM (Infothought permalink)

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Seth, Normally I concur with your positions but here I have to disagree. Two reasons why -- 1. Google doesnt need to be looking for positive PR right now and this can be way more trouble than it would ever be worth and number 2 is detailed here and its not a simple one paragraph explaination either.


Posted by: John Bransford at January 20, 2006 10:53 PM

John, I have to disagree - this is no trouble at all. Again, it's an almost trivial request. It's one part of an expert's report which is one part of a big argument, and not a large part either. Look at how much press Google has gotten for making a fuss here. All they have to do is incant the magic words - Big Brother! - and everyone falls down praising them. People are being taken by the posturing.

You argument in fact is pretty much what I'm talking about - "power grab ... cover story ... guvment knowing what they search ...". It's in the same vein as the fakers who claim to be victims of police brutality to gain sympathy, it's manipulative.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at January 20, 2006 11:05 PM

If Google did this as a PR stunt it will certainly backfire, since it directs _lots_ of attention to the privacy issues and Google's lack of serious commitment to them.

You are probably right that not all commentators will bother to check if there is any personal information concerned with this particular request, and some commentators _will_ bother to check and write some sensationalist untruth anyway.

Posted by: Karl-Friedrich Lenz at January 22, 2006 05:50 AM

No matter what Google says I am now nervous about using it. With such a US government in power I feel less and less safe using US-based Internet systems. India (Brazil, whoever) please declare that you will respect user privacy and encourage your bright IT people to launch a Google substitute. This is a tremendous business opportunity for your country. I would switch tomorrow... Show the US what can happen when a mindless government erodes people's trust to one of its most important industries...

Posted by: a typical web user at January 22, 2006 05:32 PM

This is pure BS. One can prove anything by choosing the right search terms.

For an article in the late INDUSTRY STANDARD, I compared links retrieved for "sex" and "pornography" versus those retrieved for "God." God won, hands down. Maybe if I'd listed "pussy," "dick," or whatever thoughtful phrases will be thought up by the Justice Department -- it's so good at doing everything it condemns, like savaging our liberty -- it will get a more shocking result.

If anyone's using this for "good PR," it's the Bush Administration, which really knows how to fire up the blue noses, tent-preachers, and right-wing radio talk-show hosts.

If you don't get it, you don't get politics. Go watch WAG THE DOG again.

Posted by: Bob Jacobson at January 25, 2006 07:35 PM