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Google, Big Brother, and paranoia

Posted by Richard on January 25, 2006

Last week, the Justice Department tried to subpoena search query data from Google, which resisted the request. What the feds want isn’t information about who searched for what, but just aggregated data on all the search strings used at Google. They’re doing research into how people search as part of their study of how to protect minors from smut or something. Stupid stuff that the feds have no business doing, but not exactly ominous portents of fascist repression.

Nevertheless, according to the New York Times’ Katie Hafner, some people are trembling with fear (emphasis added):

Kathryn Hanson, a former telecommunications engineer who lives in Oakland, Calif., was looking at BBC News online last week when she came across an item about a British politician who had resigned over a reported affair with a "rent boy."

It was the first time Ms. Hanson had seen the term, so, in search of a definition, she typed it into Google. As Ms. Hanson scrolled through the results, she saw that several of the sites were available only to people over 18. She suddenly had a frightening thought. Would Google have to inform the government that she was looking for a rent boy – a young male prostitute?

Ms. Hanson, 45, immediately told her boyfriend what she had done. "I told him I’d Googled ‘rent boy,’ just in case I got whisked off to some Navy prison in the dead of night," she said. 

Although Ms. Hafner quoted a couple of people who dismissed such concerns, her article suggested that they’re far outnumbered by people who range from troubled to extremely paranoid. For instance:

"It’s scary to think that it may just be a matter of time before Googling will invite an F.B.I. agent to tap your phone or interrogate you," Ms. Farrell said.

Sheryl Decker, 47, an information technology manager in Seattle, said she was now thinking twice about what she said in her personal e-mail correspondence. "I have been known to send very unflattering things about our government and our president," Ms. Decker said. "I still do, but I am careful about using certain phrases that I once wouldn’t have given a second thought."

Ms. Decker’s caution is being echoed by others. Genny Ballard, 36, a professor of Spanish at Centre College in Danville, Ky., said she had grown more conscious about what she typed into the Google search box. "Each time I put something in, I think about how it could be reconstructed to mean that I have more than an academic curiosity," Ms. Ballard said.

My take? I deplore the Justice Department’s new zeal, under Gonzales, for fighting pornography. Even child pornography, where actual crimes with victims exist, shouldn’t be a federal matter. But worrying about your Google searches is just silly. It’s not like you’re in China.

Ironically, of course, the fine liberals who run Google — and whose motto is "don’t do evil" — just announced that they’re willing to cooperate with the Chinese government’s censorship, repression, and monitoring of its citizens in order to do business there:

Jan. 24, 2006 (KRT News delivered by Newstex) — SAN JOSE, Calif. — Google announced that it is officially launching its services in China, a move that will require the Internet firm to subject itself to self-censorship.
Google is one of the last large U.S. Internet companies to officially set up shop inside China. The delay reflects months of internal wrangling over how to balance business interests against its distaste at having to comply with China’s restrictive speech policies.

So, Google executives Larry Page and Sergey Brin found it distasteful to cooperate with the Chicoms, but not as distasteful as cooperating with the Bush administration’s Justice Department. "Don’t do evil," indeed.

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