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Don't Look Now, But It's Happening

By - January 18, 2006

From my book, written a year or so ago:

As we move our data to the servers at Amazon.com, Hotmail.com,

Yahoo.com, and Gmail.com, we are making an implicit bargain, one

that the public at large is either entirely content with, or, more likely,

one that most have not taken much to heart.

That bargain is this: we trust you to not do evil things with our

information. We trust that you will keep it secure, free from unlaw-

ful government or private search and seizure, and under our control

at all times. We understand that you might use our data in aggregate

to provide us better and more useful services, but we trust that you

will not identify individuals personally through our data, nor use

our personal data in a manner that would violate our own sense of

privacy and freedom.

That’s a pretty large helping of trust we’re asking companies to

ladle onto their corporate plate. And I’m not sure either we or they

are entirely sure what to do with the implications of such a transfer.

Just thinking about these implications makes a reasonable person’s

head hurt.

From the Mercury News, today:

The Bush administration on Wednesday asked a federal judge to order Google Inc. to turn over a broad range of material from its closely guarded databases.

The move is part of a government effort to revive an Internet child protection law struck down two years ago by the U.S. Supreme Court. The law was meant to punish online pornography sites that make their content inaccessible to minors.

In court papers filed in U.S. District Court in San Jose, Justice Department lawyers revealed that Google has refused to comply with a subpoena issued last year for the records, which include a request for one million random Web addresses and records of all Google searches from any one-week period.

The Mountain View-based search engine opposes releasing the information on a variety of grounds, saying it would violate the privacy rights of its users and reveal company trade secrets, according to court documents.

Nicole Wong, an associate general counsel for Google, said the company will fight the government’s effort “vigorously.”

…The government indicated that other, unspecified search engines have agreed to release the information,but not Google (emphasis mine).

Of course the Bush administration started with the cover of “fighting child porn.” Do you think that’s all they’ve asked for?

Of course not.



Bravo, Google, for fighting this. Don’t give up the fight. It’s not just about this one request. This is a major, major moment. And shame on the other engines for not standing up and fighting.

(And while I’m tossing out kudos, bravo on the two tier Internet stance, as well.)

Update: Philipp has a hilarious send up here – “Patriot Search.”

Update Two: This is an awesome, up to the minute resource, over at SEW, on this story. Xeni at BB is also pursuing the story, and has news that the DOJ got info from MSFT, AOL, and Yahoo. Key detail: So far, no personally identifying info. That, I imagine, is buried in a Patriot Act request.

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  • http://www.mobiletracker.ent Jon Gales

    In the Merc quote it sez: “The law was meant to punish online pornography sites that make their content inaccessible to minors.”

    Maybe I’m just in need of law school, but what’s wrong with sites that don’t let minors see porn? Isn’t that the law?

  • http://patil.wordpress.com patil

    If the authorities had asked for child porn related information in various Google’s databases, it would have made sense. I fail to understand why do they want “all search queries” being made in a period of one full week ? Google should fight before they turn-in their records. This will be an interesting case to follow.

    While I complete this comment, I hear my door being knocked. Who’s there ? “Mr.Patil, under the Patriot Act, I can refuse to answer your question and enter your house as I already have the master key” ;-)

  • http://blogebrity.com Kyle Bunch

    “The law was meant to punish online pornography sites that make their content inaccessible to minors.”

    So now we’re punishing people for NOT making porn available to minors?

  • Jeremy

    Place your bets on whether the feds get the records.

    http://www.poolitics.com/goo4

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    The article is garbled. This doesn’t have anything to do with child porn – which is already HIGHLY illegal, and wasn’t affected by the relevant Supreme Court decision.

    It has to do with various legal battles as to whether censorware works or not, to a certain legal standard. This has been an ongoing argument, with each side performing some acrobatics depending on what they want to argue at the moment.

  • http://blog.outer-court.com Philipp Lenssen

    A child looking at porn is NOT child porn.

  • http://blog.outer-court.com Philipp Lenssen

    > “The law was meant to punish online pornography
    > sites that make their content inaccessible to minors.”

    That part of the article seems to have been corrected now.

  • http://bshort.org Brian

    Well, it looks like it’s about time to install Tor.

  • Ven

    Another reason NOTto use Google’s map on your Blackberry. You have to respond to their SMS message before you can use the map feature. One more interesting data set Google can compile on you.

  • http://www.savedsearchpro.com Josh

    Perhaps someone should just point the Feds to: Slut-o-Meter

    Slut-o-meter evaluates the promiscuity of the subject you enter by comparing the number of Google search results with and without “safe-search” enabled.

    Fascinating site.

  • http://joeduck.blogspot.com Joe Hunkins

    I was thinking “what’s the big deal here?” since they were not requesting personal info, but Danny Sullivan noted that this mundane request is probably working to establish the “right” to request private info later.

    That said, the community needs to do a MUCH better job of helping to police illegal online activity. I’ve always found it ironic that many online people think Google has a huge responsibility to prevent click fraud (and other commercial abuses) but little or no responsibility to help prevent online child abuse.

  • http://search-engines-web.com/ Search Engines Web

    That Original
    decision was a 5 to 4 Decision – with the new Bush Appointee, there is a perception that the swing vote will go in their favor …

    here is a paragraph from an article highlighting the decision – since links in posts are not automatically approved it is a news(dot)com article from June 2004


    A divided U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday suggested that a federal law designed to restrict Internet pornography violated Americans’ rights to freedom of speech, but the court stopped short of a definitive ruling striking down the law as unconstitutional.

    The 5-4 ruling upheld an injunction barring prosecutors from filing criminal cases under the Child Online Protection Act, or COPA, until a full trial takes place. COPA restricts the use of sexually explicit material deemed “harmful to minors” on commercial Web sites. Violation of the law can result in civil fines and prison terms.

    The Supreme Court in theory is supposed to decide the CONSTITIONALITY of an issue, but the real facts or life are much more political

    This Google defiance case WILL go to the Supreme Court

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    FYI, I have a hilarious old blog post catching the government in a fundamental error about confusion of the meaning of Google searches, and using that mistake in an argument about this law before the Supreme Court:

    [Let's see if this gets past the anti-spam blocks]

    Free porn, Google, spam, Internet censorship, and the Supreme Court

  • http://borsch.typepad.com Steve Borsch

    So yesterday I wrote a post about identity management and ended with these two paragraphs:

    “The last part of the problem I’m seeing is one that not many people are talking about: it is one of simple trust (or the lack thereof). From NSA performing domestic surveillance and a history of it in the Federal government to security expert Steve Gibson’s report that there is a “back door” Microsoft put in to Windows for who-knows-what reason (though Microsoft denied it was there just like they did back in 1999), it makes a guy wonder if the government or even a cross-industry alliance could be trusted?

    If the Web is to truly live up to the potential we all know it could (online voting, more commerce, human relationships) then single sign-on, identity management and especially trust need to be figured out.”

    Trust, trust, trust. My level of trust under the Bush Administration is gone. Same holds true of Microsoft. If Google can fight…all the better.

    Notice how the “spin” used to use terror as the justification for everything and that you weren’t a patriot unless you believed. Same holds true with this and I can hear the Bush spin doctor’s now: “…so you’re against it because you’re *for* child pornography and children’s access to it too?”

  • http://searchquant.blogspot.com Chris Zaharias

    IMO, Google management are showing themselves to be hypocritical and disrespectful of the country whose laws and freedoms have allowed Google to exist and thrive in the first place.

    1) Hypocrisy – were Google to put at risk the success of its Chinese operations for the sake of the principle of freedom of speech and individual rights, then while I still wouldn’t agree with their stance on the Administration’s request, I would certainly respect them for having principles they’re willing to stand by. Regardless of my own opinion on the Patriot act and the correct balance of U.S. citizen rights vs. need to fight everything from pedophilia to terrorism, I do understand that there are different opinions. That said, however, Google has shown itself hypocritical in this instance. Why? Because at the same time they are willing to rebuff the Bush administration’s request to access search data to ferret out pedophilia, they gave in to Chinese govt demands to censure their SERPs. That, my friends, is hypocrisy with a capital ‘H’.

    2) Profound disrespect for the United States – it’s worth pointing out that over 99% of the world’s SERPs are being served, ultimately, by U.S.-based search engines, and there are reasons for that. In this blessed country we are free to pursue crazy business ideas, we are free to access any information we want to access, and we are free to do so within the best set of intellectual property protection laws the world has ever seen. Just as importantly, we are free to pursue grand business schemes such as ‘organizing the world’s information’ because our laissez-faire financial system allows investment dollars to freely flow to bright minds and ideas with no concern for history, tenure, age, ethnicity, sexual preference or political persuasion; in a word, we live in the truest meritocracy ever conceived.

    Our liberal meritocracy, whose individual rights form the basis for the social contract, however, only exists because Americans have been willing to die for it. From the war of independence to WWII, Vietnam and now Iraq, our fathers, sons, brothers, mothers, sisters and daughters have rightly understood the American ideal of liberty as worth defending at all costs. For very good reasons as well, our social contract has been strong and beneficial enough over these last 230 years to facilitate acknowledgement en masse of periodic (albeit temporary) needs for federal gov’t to suspect some individual rights in order to further the common good. Examples:

    1. Military drafts – WWI, WWII, Korea and Vietnam wars all necessitated military drafts. Whether or not all Americans agreed with all wars is immaterial. The majority, however, do agree on one thing – we have an elected gov’t who we empower to make decisions in times of war, decisions which public opinion must necessarily *not* be factored into.

    2. Internment of Japanese citizens & nationals – it’s easy in retrospect to say that 99.99% (perhaps even 100%) of interred Japanese were as loyal as the rest of America, but the perceived threat to America after Pearl Harbor was such that most Americans gladly supported internment.

    3. Wiretapping – a federal anti-crime tactic nearly since the days of Alexander Graham Bell, wiretapping is the phone analog to Bush’s request for search data, and it has been universally accepted by the vast majority of law-abiding Americans.

    With these historical precedents in mind, I find Google profoundly disrespectful of their obligations to participate in the social contract developed here in the U.S. over the last 230 years and defended with millions of lives, *especially* in the context of one arena where Republicans and Democrats would appear to agree – that pedophilia is abhorrent and a crime nearly as horrible as murder.

    Argue with Bush’s policy’s if you will, but bring more to the table in defending Google’s actions than thinly-veiled distaste for the man personally and disagreement with his foreign policy. Moreover, I think everyone needs to think about what their feelings on this personally abstract topic would be if:

    a)their child was molested by someone they met on the internet. Please don’t tell me you would simply blame your NetNanny provider.

    b)their spouse was killed an ebola attack, subsequent to which a computer was found in an Al Qaeda safehouse in Pakistan which had a history of 30 Google searches on the topic of widescale aerosol diffusion of viruses.

    -Shorebreak

  • http://www.andilinks.com/ Andi

    Somebody sure has their priorities screwed up.

    At some point during their young lives virtually all children are intensely curious about porn and quite resourseful in finding it.

    Teaching your children some common sense about the porn they will inevitably find somewhere is far more important than trying to block it from their view. How is it that parents cannot recall their own childhood experiences with porn? Why can’t they impart some wisdom to their children instead of attempting the impossible task of blocking porn from their kids eyes?

    Oh yeah I forgot–talking about sex with your children is too embarrassing, better to pretend it doesn’t exist.

  • Richard

    How do web queries tell which websites are providing access to minors (ok I know some people type in the URL, but a small %). Surely they need to look at the results not the queries.

  • http://www.webnetic.net Kimo Crossman

    Google created their own problem by collecting this information in the first place….

    In an attempt to rollout a Citywide Wireless Internet plan (TechConnect) two major approaches being considered by San Francisco which may significantly encroach on the public’s privacy. The two options are a for-profit solution which will finance the solution by monetizing the public’s privacy or grants from Homeland Security. This occurs in the context of elected officials and city administrators patting themselves on the back for what the voters approved (2004) in a watch law ordinance that makes Patriot Act requests difficult for the Federal government to pursue in San Francisco.

    The targeted advertising solution (google and others) would track all the email and surfing habits of any user. This information could be used as in Gmail and Amazon to send specific advertising. It is of course , also available for National Security Letters and other legal methods which would not be presented within the legal context of San Francisco – avoiding the Watch Law. While networks can be created that do not track a user’s private information (no server logs, etc) that is not a method being promoted publicaly by vendors like Google and in fact is partly the reason the Justice Department and Google are now fighting over production of user’s search records – Google can’t say they just don’t have the information. While there are questions about Privacy in the RFP, they were specifically written as Open Ended rather than as Minimal Standards. Public Advocates and Organizations like ACLU, EFF.org and EPIC.org have all written and some have spoken about their concerns with this approach Before the RFP was created and released – yet no changes were made. Also DTIS has the ability to waive any RFP requirements in the contract negotiation process anyhow.

    The other funding concept that is being quietly discussed as a mechanism for the San Francisco Municipal Wireless solution is Homeland Security Grants – the calendar image below is from the city official Chris Vein who is in charge of the RFP process which requires bid submittals by 2006/2/21 – See Below

    Washington Post: 2006-01-19 Fed Grants (Homeland Security) for Surveillance Cameras for Small Towns .. this seems related to Municipal Wireless funding efforts as well in San Francisco

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/01/18/AR2006011802324.html

    The Homeland Security funding option: “Motorola’s proposal suggests that the city pitch the project as a public safety issue, and capitalize on grants from government organizations such as the Department of Homeland Security. They suggest that the network would help law enforcement by enabling the SFPD to put wireless cameras across the city cheaply, and that the signal from a particular camera could be routed wirelessly to officers in their cars as they approached the scene.” (thanks to http://www.JacksonWest.com for summary)

    Combined brief ACLU, EFF.org and Epic.org
    http://www.eff.org/deeplinks/archives/004078.php

    SF Watch Law Re Patriot Act
    http://www.sfgov.org/site/uploadedfiles/bdsupvrs/about/watch_law_program.pdf

    Jackson West summary of TechConnect RFI/C submittals (the step before the current RFP process)
    http://gigaom.com/2005/10/18/politics-of-san-francisco-wifi-project/

    Chris Vein DTIS Acting Director’s calendar showing a meeting planned with Motorola (obtained through a Public Record’s request) image Bob Siemmens/Motorola TechConnect – Homeland Security 925-218-4213

  • Nicholas Norr

    THE MOMENT AN INDIAN (OR BRAZILIAN, OR WHATEVER LARGE COUNTRY I TRUST CANNOT BE EASILY BULLIED BY THE US) COMPANY LAUNCHES A DECENT SEARCH ENGINE AND THEIR GOVERNMENT PROMISES TO RESPECT USER PRIVACY, I WILL NEVER EVER AGAIN USE A US-BASED SEARCH ENGINE IN MY LIFE. THE ACTIONS OF THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION ARE SIMPLY MAKING THE US INTERNET INDUSTRY VULNERABLE TO COMPETITION FROM ABROAD SINCE PEOPLE LIKE ME FEEL LESS AND LESS SAFE TO USE SYSTEMS THAT ARE UNDER US JURISDICTION.

  • Anon E. Mouse

    Wall Street again shows how it is clueless on these issues. Google punished in the markets for defending its customers? Instead, the markets should be punishing Yahoo, MSN and AOL (Time Warner). I’m seriously considering my–obviously too many subscription services on Yahoo. The thought of paying someone to divulge my private information to the government is just too much. Yes, I’m aware that most of the data supplied supposedly was too raw and anonymous to be linked to individuals, but when it comes to government intrusion, yes, many of us believe in the slippery slope. That most of the key search engines, sans Google, would bend over so easily is deeply disturbing.

  • http://www.fixdarlehen.de Mastercrash

    That said, the community needs to do a much better job of helping to police illegal online activity. I’ve always found it ironic that many online people think Google has a huge responsibility to prevent click fraud but little or no responsibility to help prevent online child abuse.

  • John D. Ella

    November 2006.

    Concerning: Government Investigations Into Web Search Data

    Compliance with government sponsored investigations into personal online search data is a complicated invasion of privacy. Questions involving user privacy and business operations within the online environment could eventually result in the creation of questionable behaviour by legal and public authorities, where before such an investigation, privacy within the Internet would have been considered a normal “way of life” for Internet users.

    One fact that seriously hinders such an investigation is that the Internet is widely used as a communication method internationally, and sifting through search files randomly from an ISP would involve perhaps thousands or millions of international users, and thus violate their rights to remain free from search investigations without prior notification from the searcher, especially if the searcher is a government representative, within the Internet environment. Because many ISP’s operate internationally, obtaining such information may also involve legal problems internationally, and may violate international and national laws outside of our own country (USA).

    Another hindrance to such an investigation is the inavailability of protected or non-protected search information within a networked environment; Aware of memory limits within a networked LAN, one can accurately say that existing RAM memory in ANY environment, personal and/or networked, and memory size limits within those environments make keeping such search data difficult if not impossible. Also there exists the possible fact that such search data is not kept in any memory file whatsoever within an ISP environment.

    Perhaps a government involved in such investigations could look to the established privacy rights of citizens first and foremost, and also to already existing laws pertaining to unlawful search and seizure that may ultimately apply to any such investigation. This is not meant as an “obstructionist” statement, but as a carefully worded one intended to bring attention to possibly entangling legal conflicts and law enforcement actions, those involving already existing rights to privacy and privacy laws, and the possible future “policing” of the online environment.

  • http://rent-ring.com Gerard Kennedy

    I’m seriously considering my–obviously too many subscription services on Yahoo. The thought of paying someone to divulge my private information to the government is just too much. Yes, I’m aware that most of the data supplied supposedly was too raw and anonymous to be linked to individuals, but when it comes to government intrusion, yes, many of us believe in the slippery slope.

  • http://reviewstart.com Ken Dryden

    The two options are a for-profit solution which will finance the solution by monetizing the public’s privacy or grants from Homeland Security. This occurs in the context of elected officials and city administrators patting themselves on the back for what the voters approved in a watch law ordinance.