[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