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DOJ V. Google: Not About Porn Or Privacy

Jason Lee Miller
Staff Writer
Published: 2006-01-24

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Google's refusal to turn over a sample of search queries to the Department of Justice has caused a flurry of speculation about privacy issues, the government's right to demand that information, what further information the government would demand, and Google's true reasoning for denying the request. Of course, if you looked at the mainstream media coverage of the event, you might believe the issue revolves around kiddie porn and Google's protection of it.

The Bush administration requested a sample of search queries from all four major search engines to add support for its revamping of the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), previously stricken down by the Supreme Court for being unconstitutional. COPA is a measure intended to prevent children from viewing or being able to access pornography online-not about child porn.

But, as pointed out in a couple of places, and as seen along crawlers at the bottom of televised newscasts, the media spin has this case going in a bad direction from a Google PR standpoint. What was a privacy and protection of industry secret (and some say monetary) issue for Google has now turned into a media circus surrounding Google's supposed hoarding of child pornography information. In fact, it was phrased similarly to "the government's fight against child porn" by major news sources like CNN, Forbes, Times Online, Mercury News, and Market Watch.

Some suggest that privacy isn't the real issue either. The full search query record, as illustrated by Danny Sullivan, would contain an IP address, a search query, cookie information, and (possibly) email account information like this:

www-az3.proxy.aol.com - 25/Dec/2005 10:16:22 - http://www.google.com/search?q=britney%20spears%20nude - 740674ce213e9d9 - lexluthor340@gmail.com (modified from aol)

After negotiations with the DOJ, however, Google was requested to send a search query reading something like [britney spears nude].

The issue may not be privacy, then, unless the government finds something they don't like after sifting through a log of a billion possible queries and presses for further information.

Sullivan and others are suggesting it has a more practical business nature. For Google, the issue of user trust is a big one. It has been long feared that the information logged by Google's index could be demanded by the government. Google willingly folding would be a bad image move, especially if the information provided led to further government probes.

It may also be a trade secret issue. Once information becomes a public record, it's public. Google more than likely feels that too much information would reveal the intricate secrets about how they aggregate their data.

And still others think it may have to do with Google advertising clients. Nielsen/Net Ratings reports that nearly a quarter of the Internet is pornographic. Many of those site owners are potential Adwords clients who may be affected by the probe.

But if you were to ask the writer (that's me), it's not about Google at all. It's about the government and how much power the people are willing to give it. Can the government demand random information from a non-involved private entity with no clear purpose for its use? What if they see what they construe as terrorist searches? Would they press for more information from Google?

What the government is fundamentally doing is demanding information they might be able to use just in case somebody may have entered a search query that might have led to a website that could have something illegal on it ---(summary paraphrased, and echoed, from radio segment hosted by Judge Andrew Nepolitano). And that has serious constitutional implications.

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About the Author:
Jason L. Miller is a staff writer for WebProNews covering technology and business.

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