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 03:39 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein

January 19, 2006

Feds Demand Masses of Google Log Data

Greetings. A privacy-related story is breaking today that is breathtaking in its potential importance and that involves issues that I've been suggesting for years were likely to eventually cause serious privacy problems.

It's been revealed that the U.S. federal government has demanded that Google turn over vast quantities of search log materials (including all searches for a week!) -- apparently not as part of a specific criminal investigation, but rather in support of renewed efforts to push through the Child Online Protection Act (COPA).

Google is fighting the Feds on this, and I strongly applaud Google's efforts not to turn over such data in this case. Some other unspecified search engines have reportedly already complied with this outrageous fishing expedition by the administration.

A good summary of the situation is in this SiliconBeat entry.

This story brings to the forefront yet again the complex risks associated with the retention of sensitive data -- and what happens when outside entities begin to view it as a treasure trove for their own purposes.

This saga has only begun. Stay tuned.


Posted by Lauren at 09:26 AM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein