Thursday, December 11, 2008

Google's gatekeepers

From the New York Times, on Google's process for censoring search results, particularly to comply with more restrictive speech laws in other countries:
‘If your whole game is to increase market share,’ says Lawrence Lessig, speaking of Google, ‘it’s hard to . . . gather data in ways that don’t raise privacy concerns or in ways that might help repressive governments to block controversial content.’
“Right now, we’re trusting Google because it’s good, but of course, we run the risk that the day will come when Google goes bad,” Wu told me. In his view, that day might come when Google allowed its automated Web crawlers, or search bots, to be used for law-enforcement and national-security purposes. “Under pressure to fight terrorism or to pacify repressive governments, Google could track everything we’ve searched for, everything we’re writing on gmail, everything we’re writing on Google docs, to figure out who we are and what we do,” he said. “It would make the Internet a much scarier place for free expression.” The question of free speech online isn’t just about what a company like Google lets us read or see; it’s also about what it does with what we write, search and view.

WU’S FEARS THAT violations of privacy could chill free speech are grounded in recent history: in China in 2004, Yahoo turned over to the Chinese government important account information connected to the e-mail address of Shi Tao, a Chinese dissident who was imprisoned as a result. Yahoo has since come to realize that the best way of resisting subpoenas from repressive governments is to ensure that private data can’t be turned over, even if a government demands it. In some countries, I was told by Michael Samway, who heads Yahoo’s human rights efforts, Yahoo is now able to store communications data and search queries offshore and limits access of local employees, so Yahoo can’t be forced to turn over this information even if it is ordered to do so.

Isolating, or better still, purging data is the best way of protecting privacy and free expression in the Internet age: it’s the only way of guaranteeing that government officials can’t force companies like Google and Yahoo to turn over information that allows individuals to be identified. Google, which refused to discuss its data-purging policies on the record, has raised the suspicion of advocacy groups like Privacy International. Google announced in September that it would anonymize all the I.P. addresses on its server logs after nine months. Until that time, however, it will continue to store a wealth of personal information about our search results and viewing habits — in part to improve its targeted advertising and therefore its profits. As Wu suggests, it would be a catastrophe for privacy and free speech if this information fell into the wrong hands.

Article here. As Google's search data primacy grows, privacy concerns will only increase. Google's plan to anonymize its server log data after nine months is a positive step for user privacy, although its massive online store of, e.g., email data and private user-created documents increases the risk of hackers (including those employed by governments) or Google itself accessing such information for nefarious purposes.

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