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WSJ Hosts Search History/Privacy Debate

By - August 17, 2006

This is really worth reading if you’re at all interested in the issues I’ve been on about for so long…some tidbits:

…The Wall Street Journal Online invited Kevin Bankston, a lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy rights group, to debate the issue with Markham Erickson, executive director of NetCoalition, a lobby group for Internet firms including Google and Yahoo. Their conversation, carried out over email, is below….

Bankston: …the DOJ’s position is that ECPA doesn’t apply to the search engines and search terms, the search engines themselves refuse to say what they think, and it hasn’t been litigated yet. In the meantime, how the law does or does not apply is being hashed out secretly between DOJ investigators and search engines’ compliance counsel; the public has no idea how the law is being applied, just as they have no real idea of what the search engines are doing with their data.

Which leads to the question, do you think that ECPA applies — or should be amended to apply — to search engines’ disclosure of search logs? And shouldn’t we have a federal law like the California Online Privacy Protection Act, establishing national minimum standards for privacy policies?….

The answer, from a fellow who represents leaders like Yahoo and Google, is pretty damn anemic. I’ve always criticized search engines for failing to take a leadership position in this discussion, and I very much believe that whoever does first, will win big in the hearts and minds of consumers.

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9 thoughts on “WSJ Hosts Search History/Privacy Debate

  1. JG says:

    I don’t know about the ECPA, but what about the DMCA? We as Web 2.0-enlightened people all believe that consumers are now content creators, right? So isn’t a query I’ve typed essentially a “performance”? And if not a query, then a whole series of queries? A whole series of queries is pretty substantive, as we have all found out recently. Don’t I, as the “performer” of those queries, have a right to control their re-publication, as per the DMCA?

  2. King Troll says:

    I needed money for smokes, one of my friends knew this, and after another friend told a story about a guy hot knifing a spider’s body, thinking it was hash, he said “Hey, here’s $10 man, see that dead spider?”
    “You fucking bastard” was my only reply…I smoked that fucking thing, and it sucked, but it could’ve been worse…tasted like a burning mushroom.

    It made me kind of vibrate…could’ve been poison, could’ve been nausea, could’ve just been in my head, but regardless the feeling passed, and I got my smokes…

    All in all, it was worth it.

  3. Chetan says:

    I agree. I have said before Privacy is Google’s Achilles Heel just like Security has been for Microsoft. MS ignored Security for a long time until they couldn’t.

  4. Frank says:

    JG’s point is very interesting. I recommend taking a look at Justin Hughes’s article on ssrn on whether “size matters” in copyright law.

    I’ve got a post on the “microworks” issue here; Grimmelmann’s comment is classic:

    http://prawfsblawg.blogs.com/prawfsblawg/2006/05/overheard_in_ne.html

  5. JG says:

    To follow up on my own post: In further support of this idea of my query stream as a “performance”, the Germans have a word: Lebenskuenstler (literally: “life artist”). The notion is someone who lives their life as a work of art; the artist’s medium is not a canvas or a block of marble, but the artist’s own life. One’s actions and intentions are one’s artistic expression and creation.

    So if I choose to define myself as a Lebenskuenstler, I truly feel that companies should not have the right to reproduce my actions and intentions, the works of my life art.

    There is, I suppose, still a question of ownership of the digital data. Do I own it, because I am the creator? Or does G/Y/M own it, because I’ve “expressed” it to them? While personally I feel that I should still have 100% ownership and that I am only “licensing” my Lebenskunst to G/Y/M (the same way a radio broadcast does not give me ownership of someone else’s music), I do see how one could make the point that the search engines do at least have partial ownership.

    But even with partial ownership, they still do not have the right to re-publish my “art”, because I still retain the other part of the ownership. I’m sorry G/Y/M: No third parties allowed. The terms and conditions of my Lebenskunst do not permit it.

    It is about time that the DMCA start working for the little guy.

  6. Kamal Jain says:

    Do not forget that Google owns 5% of AOL. So 5% accountability of AOL’s misshap falls on Google’s shoulders too.

    An accident is an accident. No body could claim, no matter how safe driver he/she is, that an accident will not happen again. In Eric Schmidt’s word, never say never.

    Even if I assume that the chances of a privacy accident at Google is small, but the impact could be so huge that the tradeoff is perhaps not worth while.

  7. Kamal Jain says:

    Actually there are couple of standard methods for individuals to protect their privacy. One is to not accept any unnecessary cookie. Two, install a desktop component to add some noise in your search log. Once in a while this desktop component could make a random search on the search engine you regularly use.

    I am not a firefox fan, but there might be something like this already available as a firefox extension.

  8. Noise in the search logs is a great way to enhance privacy, but it would place a big burden on the search engines. To work well, the majority of searches from a user’s machine would have to be software-generated, and the privacy utility would have to simulate a human user, including behaviors like clicking on both organic search results and ads.

    Clickfraud (from the advertiser’s perspective) would explode, when, say, 80% of clicks are really software-generated.

    Luckily users don’t tend to employ natural language when constructing search queries, so I think it shuld be possible to write software that would generate queries that would be hard to differentiate from human-written ones. Much simpler than passing the Turing test. But still not completely easy.

    Here’s a possible counter-measure for the search engines: seed a few SERPs with a nonsense result, and if it’s “clicked” on, there’s a big probability that you are talking to a computerized privacy utility ratner than a human (since users tend to click on search headlines that make sense).

  9. Kamal Jain says:

    Jakob, your proposal for search engines to defend against the noise can’t really work. It will be quite dangerous to put nonsense results among the top results. Doing so will give impression of lower quality when humans do the searches. So all this privacy defending utility has to do is to click a link among the top results.

    Markets depends upon tug-of-war game to improve the human lives. If enough users do fake searches to defend their privacy, it puts pressure on search engines to voluntary start respecting privacy.

    Kamal Jain

    Disclaimer: The author is an employee in Microsoft. The opinion expressed is his own personal opinion.