Книга: Code 2.0

Searches

Searches

In January 2006, Google surprised the government by doing what no other search company had done: It told the government “no.” The Justice Department had launched a study of pornography on the Net as a way to defend Congress’s latest regulation of pornography. It thus wanted data about how often, and in what form, people search for porn on the Internet. It asked Google to provide 1,000,000 random searches from its database over a specified period. Google — unlike Yahoo! and MSN — refused.

I suspect that when most first heard about this, they asked themselves an obvious question — Google keeps search requests? It does. Curiosity is monitored, producing a searchable database of the curious. As a way to figure out better how to do its job, Google — and every other search engine[4] — keeps a copy of every search it’s asked to make. More disturbingly, Google links that search to a specific IP address, and, if possible, to a Google users’ account. Thus, in the bowels of Google’s database, there is a list of all searches made by you when you were logged into your gmail account, sitting, waiting, for someone to ask to see it.

The government did ask. And in the normal course of things, the government’s request would be totally ordinary. It is unquestioned that the government gets to ask those with relevant evidence to provide it for an ongoing civil or criminal investigation (there are limits, but none really significant). Google has evidence; the government would ordinarily have the right to get it.

Moreover, the government in this case explicitly promised it would not use this evidence for anything more than evaluating patterns of consumption around porn. In particular, it promised it wouldn’t trace any particularly suspicious searches. It would ignore that evidence — which ordinarily it would be free to use for whatever purpose it chose — just so it could get access to aggregate data about searches for porn.

So what’s the problem this example illustrates?

Before search engines, no one had any records of curiosity; there was no list of questions asked. Now there is. People obsessively pepper search engines with questions about everything. The vast majority of these are totally benign ( “mushrooms AND ragout”). Some of them show something less benign about the searcher (“erotic pictures AND children”). Now there’s a list of all these questions, with some providing evidence of at least criminal intent.

The government’s interest in that list will increase. At first, its demands will seem quite harmless — so what if it counts the number of times people ask Google to point them to erotic pictures? Then, when not so harmless, the demands will link to very harmful behavior — searches that suggest terrorism, or abuse. Who could argue against revealing that? Finally, when not so harmless, and when the crime is not so harmful, the demands will simply insist this is an efficient way to enforce the law. “If you don’t like the law, change it. But until you do, let us enforce it.” The progression is obvious, inevitable, and irresistible.

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