Friday, January 20, 2006

"Don't be evil" the Google Way

In the search for some really real new to put up on the site for discussion, I came across this story that has been circulating quite a bit in tech-savvy circles.

Apparently, the US Department of Justice has asked a federal court to force Google to comply with a request to turn over data regarding Internet searches over the past year. It's important to note that the DoJ is not requesting personal information. They are trying to determine general search patterns in order to assist them defending the constitutionality of the Child Online Protection Act: an act aimed at keeping pornography off of sites that are accessible to minors. It's also important to note that Yahoo has already complied with this request and MSN may or may not have but MSN has pledged to assist law enforcement whenever possible. Google is firmly opposed to complying with the request and has stood up to all legal action so far.

Google's is almost manic in the level of secrecy they have for their search engine. Parts of the engine like their custom file system are very publicly discussed. Google even presented a speech on it at a very prominent Computer Science conference (I think it was ASPLOS, but I could be wrong) about two years ago. Then there are things like actual search algorithms which Google is not only secretive about but Google also tends to contradict itself pretty regularly when giving a general idea of how it works. The information they collect as part other people's searches probably falls firmly under the secretive category even if we were to ignore the ethical issue at hand since that information is very likely used to assist Google in improving the quality of their searches.

The Google company motto is "Don't be evil." I wonder if it's more evil to help or hurt the cause of the DoJ here. What is the DoJ really going to gain with these search results? They're trying to prove the Constitutionality of a pornography law. For some reason the federal court is hung up on whether filters are more effective than statutory restrictions. Should that even matter when determining the Constitutionality of the statutory restrictions? On the other hand, what is Google going to gain by not complying with a request for anonymous information? Is Google merely using privacy as an excuse to block the efforts of the DoJ? Is Google putting their super secret search methods (which may well be the Coca-Cola recipe of the 21st Century) ahead of a law aimed at protecting minors from explicit content? You could make the case that such a move would be quite "evil."


S.A.W.B. said...

Firing from the devil's advocate him here, but I can see why Google wouldn't be compelled to 'turn over all search requests' for the past year. If/since Google uses those requests to further refine their search engine's brain, they would essentially be a trade secret. If, perhaps, the DoJ were to come back, and ask Google for a specific level/type of search requests, perhaps in an attempt to see what is being asked for with regard to child pornography, as well as what Google is serving up, then, the fine folks at Google might be more willing to cooperate.

Dante said...

Now if they had taken the stance that they were not turning over this data due to trade secret reasons, I'd agree 100%. But that's not what they're doing. They're claiming they're not turning over the due to privacy issues. I imagine they care very much less about the privacy of their users than they do about keeping their trade secrets. I'm not sure I disagree with Google's refusal either way but I certainly disagree with their lame attempt to sugar coat a fight to keep trade secrets by pretending their sticking up for the little guy's privacy.

Patrick Armstrong said...

This sounds like a fishing expedition on the part of DoJ. Least that's what it sounds like to me.

First of all, constitutionality of a Law can't be proven nor disproven by a company releasing files. A law's constitutionality has to do with the way the law is written and the way the law is enforced. More importantly, the law has to pass muster with the Supreme Court Justices' interpretation of the US Constitution. The Supreme Court doesn't just declare laws un-Constitutional based on Google, no matter how high their stock goes.

So I reckon I'd be on Google's side right here.

Evil? Not at all.

IF DoJ really wanted to prove their point, they would just run a million Google searches for inane things, see how often they came across porn, and keep records of how often that is. They don't even have to pay anyone extra to do this study, they just have to require all DoJ employees, when they check Sports or News headlines or their personal email from their work PC, to Google something innocuous and see if any porn pops up on the system. They'd have a study group of 10 million searches in less than a month.

But that would 1) save the taxpayers some money, 2) actually get some stuff done, 3) give some really real, non political and empirical information and 4) would be above reproach as far as invasions of privacy are concerned.

But that would also 5) be too easy.

ruby booth said...

Also, it's entirely possible that Google is doing precisely what they say they are: protecting our privacy. Just because they are a company worth a ridiculous amount of money doesn't have to mean they lack strong principles.

I'm not an obsessive Google follower or anything, but everything I've read -- every interview, every article based on research rather than rumor -- has lead me to believe they are exactly the sort of folks who would withhold information from anyone, if they thought it violated my privacy.

They attract a lot of controversy. Chiefly because Google is big and successful, and yet they hold to these very atypical stances like having "Don't be evil" as a company motto -- not just around the office, but in their regulatory filings for the stock exchange. Personally, I have a huge amount of respect for Page and Brin as individuals. It’s possible that I will be disappointed, but I haven’t been yet.

If the courts decide that the DoJ has the legal right and a credible reason to demand this material, then we’ll have to see what Google does next. But Google, if they are the “Good Guys,” has a responsibility to protect those of us who use their search engines. If they were to comply with the DoJ requests solely on the assumption that the DoJ has everybody’s best interests at heart, I would be greatly disappointed.

An excellent interview with Page and Brin originally appearing in the Sept 2004 Playboy can be found here. Rather than trying to find the interview in the Playboy archives, I've actually linked to it through anti-Google website; so if you want an alternate viewpoint you can just follow the Google Watch link at the bottom of the interview page.

dadvocate said...

I'm with Google completely on this one. I'm sick and tired of the government (federal, state or local) finding things from which we need protected. And, then using that as an excuse to further invade our privacy and move us ever closer to a police state. Russian author, Zamyatin, wrote a book called "We" in 1920 in which everyone lived in glass buildings so that the government could see what they were doing at all times.

Sounds crazy but with electronic eavesdropping, thermal imaging devices, various monitoring cameras, etc., we're not that far away with it becoming a reality. But, of course, it's for our own good.

Dante said...

Now Ruby has really touched on the story within a story that made me want to post this to begin with. I agree that "everything I've read -- every interview, every article based on research rather than rumor -- has lead me to believe they are exactly the sort of folks who would withhold information from anyone, if they thought it violated my privacy." The only difference between Ruby's opinion and my opinion is that I think that all those interviews and articles are a sham. I think Google is putting on show so they can look like the good guys. After all, they currently possess an awful lot of clout in the IT world. They're also planning on trotting out a Google PC with a Google OS on it in the not-too-distant future which could give both Microsoft and Apple a run for their money. As their stock rises, I'm sure they don't want to be painted as another Microsoft. It does help that in this case Google's actions are commendable regardless of their reasoning.

Pat is probably right. This could very well be a fishing expidition but it looks like the Supreme Court basically gave the DoJ a fishing rod and some lures and told them how good the fishing is this time of year. I had kind of touched on it in my original post, but Justice Kennedy is awfully caught up on whether or not filters are more effective than statutory laws. What does it matter? Constitutionality should have nothing to do with effectiveness. All this talk of effectiveness probably gave the DoJ the idea to determine the effectiveness themselves.

And I don't know if Pat's method of having DoJ employees run their own investigation would work. Reverse IP lookup can tell you some pretty interesting things. In the mortgage company I worked for, we had an on-line chat system that could tell you what city you were from and quite often what business you worked for and your address if your company had fixed IP addresses (which most do). Google could conceivably be giving the DoJ different results than the rest of the world gets. If they really want accurate results, they'll probably have to get them directly from Google or have the DoJ employees do that work from home.

Personally, I really don't care if they turn over the information. It's anonymous information. I realize that releasing anonymous information now could lead to requests for less-than-anonymous information in the future but I believe that's a fight best left to the future. I can completely understand those of you who agree with Google's actions. If my profession didn't have way too many tinfoil hat government conspiracy type folks in it, I'd probably be just as opposed. But what I really find interesting are Google's real motives vs. Google's stated motives.

Right now Google is far and away the most prominent search engine on earth. They have a massive amount fo pull regarding what information people find. They got to this position by being really good at returning relevant results, but they could easily be abusive now that they have such a high user base. I think there will be a time when most people who use a computer are using a Google PC with a Google OS on it to run their Google searches and tell each other about them through their Google mail. When that time comes, I'm sure they want to look as non-evil as possible, but I have a feeling they'll be just another Micrsoft or IBM or any other company that once had a stranglehold on the IT field. The only difference would be that Google wouldn't be so easily crucified on the altar of public opinion because everyone knows they're not evil, right?

Dante said...

"The Supreme Court doesn't just declare laws un-Constitutional based on Google, no matter how high their stock goes."

And for what it's worth, if Google's stock rose to the point that they could buy a country and set up their own laws, Justice Kennedy may well use Google as part of his written opinions when referring to International Law. So while Google would never be the sole basis for such a ruling, it could "provide respected and significant confirmation for our [Supreme Court's] own conclusions."

Just thought I'd throw that out there for fun.

dadvocate said...

but Justice Kennedy is awfully caught up on whether or not filters are more effective than statutory laws. What does it matter? Constitutionality should have nothing to do with effectiveness.

Absolutely true, which is why DoJ's demands are so ludicrous. And filters work great. I use a filter I bought at Wal-Mart for $19.95 which included a firewall, spyware, etc. I can't even read my own blog unless I turn it off.

Patrick Armstrong said...

Related article to all this.