googley-eyed (sic)

Good news for google, privacy, porn, and the american justice system!

Today, the Justice Department drastically curtailed its demands on Google to release previous search queries and internet addresses, but still plans to subponeoa data to enforce an anti-porn law. In addition, a District judge announced that his upcoming decision may force Google to turn-over index excerpts but bar the Justice Dept. from user queries. While the government is trying to reign in the definant search engine, the lowered numbers on data-requested preserves the company's industry advantage while largely leaving user practices veiled, or so says a Google lawyer defending them in a Federal District Court.

It is good news, but it's a short term win, leaving a precedent for future intrusion. While privacy and commercial rights are frequently infringed upon for criminal and government investigations, never before has the potential unknown been so positively lucrative--for just about any purpose. Search, as John Battell writes, is the ultimate cache of what people everywhere in the world want--interests, cares, perversions, all of it--pinned down to the location, the time, the day. The potential for privacy violations is proportionally as great as the revolution of access that search and the internet have vaulted.

In the Googleplex lobby, a large flat screen displays a rotating earth, scintillating with undulating neon spikes, each tangential pin representing the volume of search queries for the location. This gadget--created by a Google engineer for party decor--has become the novel touch-point that every visitor ultimately cites to entertain friends or lead an article. In an adjacent building, a different projection greets lobby visitors: a running list of search queries from around the world, minus expletives. Though static black text, this is the most provocative matter. I've read that many in the company pushed to use the list as a marketing tool--perhaps displaying it in a public square--but the founders rejected idea as a potential violation of privacy, unwise-- since, for the same reason consumers might lose trust in Google, and it would invite query spammers (hunting for a publicity stunt). In the end, the company (regarding the CEOs) is as committed to privacy as the search engine itself, at least in the U.S. it seems.

As search grows--as well as every other tool that makes information transfer more fluid--so will vilgilence against privacy violations need to grow, not only against the government but also spammers and even honest, but armed curious neighbors. Yahoo, presumably, never intended for its limited cooperation with the PRC to facilitate the arrest of a Chinese journalist, but once the possibilitiy and incentive for information abuse exists, its almost statistically guaranteed it will happen. But, putting aside the scifi novels, perhaps it is time to draft laws to proactively protect search engine data, before a more pressing demand from the Justice Dept. has its way.

In a day when two computer science wizards land an interview in Playboy, let me just say there's room on this page to say: Happy Pi Day!
(FYI: the movie is cooler than the date)