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January 23, 2006

On search engines and the trails we leave...

First: Good for Google. The 10,000-pound gorilla of the internet search engines is fighting an entirely pointless government demand that it turn over search terms entered by users. Competing search engines, Yahoo, AOL and MSN, caved in without a whimper, providing the government what it wanted.

Second: Good for the government, but in a back-handed way. In demanding the information from the operators of the search engines, Department of Justice attorneys called attention to just how much information is being collected and stored the search engine companies, as well as spotlighting their own illogical actions.

The flap dates back to the Child Online Protection Act, another one of those well-intentioned but deeply flawed laws that stream neverendingly out of Congress. The intention was to protect children from the flood of porn that's available on the web, but it was a shooting-flies-with-a-shotgun thing and the Supreme Court correctly ruled in 1998 that it was unconstitutional.

The ruling turned in good part on whether there is a better way to protect children from porn than a law that also restricted content that was perfectly legal for adults to view. The court said widely available software that allows parents to block and restrict access to various websites is the better tool from a constitutional standpoint.

The government apparently wants to counter that argument and thus revive the Child Online Protection Act. Exactly how knowing what search terms are used will help is beyond me. The data would show that some number of people enter search terms that indicate they're searching for pornography, which means ... nothing, if the point is to prove that blocking/filtering software isn't the best means for keeping porn away from children.

The government says it doesn't want any personally identifiable information, just aggragates of search terms, and the companies that turned over data proclaim they didn't turn over anything that would personally identify the people doing the searchers.

Aha -- even the dimmest of the dim should now grasp that the personally identifiable information is stored and could be turned over, under government duress or otherwise. There's nothing standing between you and public disclosure of what and and when you search for but the integrity of the search-engine company. That's way Google gets good marks for fighting the request for even aggragate information.

If you want a more detailed look at just how much information about you Google may have available in its vast memory, read this story by the Washington Post's Leslie Walker. Depending upon just many of Google's conveniences you take advantage of, the trail is total and totally traceable to you.

If we're to take full advantage of the search-engine services without further destroying any hope of privacy, what's needed is a law that requires all those logs to be irrovocably and irretrievably deleted immediately, unless -- like the Post's Ms. Walker -- we authorize them to be maintained.

A final ironic note here: Google and the other search engines routinely make available lists of "top searches." You can see Google's at www.google.com/press/zeitgeist.html. The top queries for the week ended Jan. 16 ranged from "Joe Pichler" at No. 1 to "Friday the 13th" at No. 15. Hot stuff, huh?

Posted by jcb at January 23, 2006 01:59 PM


I think its bizarre that the government is trying to force search engines to help them in a case that has nothing to do with Google, MSN, or any of the search companies. Its another piece of their neverending search for more information about American citizens that they probably don't need.

Posted by: QuadCityImages at January 23, 2006 08:14 PM

And, I might note, a classic case of "the camel's nose under the tent", in that while the government maintains it isn't seeking any personally indentifiable information, they are most certainly trying to establish legal precedent for more intrusive actions in the future.

Posted by: TID at January 24, 2006 09:52 AM