January 26, 2006

Google's Search Query Log Battle vs. China Censoring -- Perceptions Matter!

Greetings. Reality matters, but perceptions can matter even more.

The juxtaposition of Google's stance on the Feds' search query log COPA data demand and Google's decision to cooperate with China's censorship does not realistically represent "hypocrisy" as is being erroneously suggested by various media articles. The two issues are very different in many key aspects.

However, this is not to minimize the enormous risks to Google -- and other Internet services -- if they're perceived to be making "inconsistent" policy decisions that directly affect important issues (often relating to essentially non-technical impacts) about which many people are very concerned, and often very emotional.

Now, as was completely predictable, Congress is getting involved.

Congressman Tim Ryan has announced a hearing of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus (Feb. 16 is the date that I've heard) to explore the potential drafting of laws that would limit or otherwise control U.S.-based Internet companies from complying with the censorship demands of foreign countries. Emotions were clearly exasperated by Google's launching of the "dot-cn" Chinese version of Google search that blocks links as per Chinese government directives, though Google is not alone in this regard among U.S.-based Internet companies.

Ryan also specifically tied this to the COPA case, directly and dramatically suggesting that Google was more willing to obey Chinese law than U.S. law. This is an example of the perception risk I described above crystalized in a very potent way.

The situation highlights the minefield of issues that Google and other Internet companies now face, and the desperate need for proactive approaches to dealing with the ways that these technologies affect individuals and society.

Google's participation in the Chinese censorship program (which I consider to be extremely problematic) creates a perception that is undermining what I view as Google's correct decision regarding the search query COPA case, with the sorts of reactions we're now seeing.

Coincidentally, I spent a very pleasant afternoon two days ago at Google's Los Angeles (actually Santa Monica) facilities giving a talk regarding exactly these and other issues. This included (among other topics) discussion both regarding those areas where I feel that Google is doing a terrific job, and their policies and operations about which I've been (sometimes highly) critical -- where I feel that changes would be of benefit to Google, their users, and society at large. (Google invited me and we scheduled this talk prior to the breaking of the COPA search query story -- talk about timing...)

I much appreciated the opportunity to address such issues directly at Google and meeting a bunch of nice folks at the site. The talk was taped and I hope that the video will become publicly available in the near future -- I'll let you know.


Posted by Lauren at January 26, 2006 03:39 PM | Permalink
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