SearchTHIS: Google and Privacy

There is a giant rock screaming toward earth and we have only eight days to stop it. It's what the movie "Armageddon" called a global killer. Who will help us? Just like in the movie, the federal government has broken into the patent office to steal the plans for the world's biggest and best drill. We'll fly up to the asteroid, drill a hole in it and blow that sucker sky high from the inside out.

Phew! Another crisis averted.

Of course, the government's smartest scientists couldn't get the drill right, so the guy who made it had to fly to the asteroid and do it himself. Patents might not apply to outer space, but what about cyberspace? In times of crisis can the government just break in and take what they want? Who determines the level of desperation needed for an all access pass?

Just when you thought your most private of thoughts were safe, the Justice Department has issued subpoena's to Microsoft, AOL, Yahoo! and Google to support yet another serious crisis.

Facts du jour
 
It's all about the porn, really. 1998's Child Online Protection Act (COPA) had an admirable goal: keep porn out of the hands of children. Yet for a whole lot of good reasons, several courts have knocked the statute down since then. The most recent effort was Ashcroft vs. American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in June, 2004. The Supreme Court upheld the block on enforcing COPA since it was likely to be unconstitutional. It is also worth noting that many other local and state laws have been passed to help protect children.

The ACLU is once again contending that COPA is in violation of the first amendment, while the Justice Department is once again seeking the ability to enforce COPA and has asked (read: ordered) some assistance from search providers in building a cogent argument. They hope to prove that parental controls and filters are not nearly enough protection for our kids, and they expect to support the argument with search data.

To date, of the search sites subpoenaed to provide information, Google is the only one that has refused. None of the other providers have publicly disavowed the request; Yahoo!, AOL and MSN have issued statements that they have provided at least some of the information requested and have taken steps to guard user privacy.

Protecting children from pornography is a noble effort, and the connected digital world has made tremendous strides in the battle, but should we sacrifice the constitution to get there? Moreover, should a search provider be compelled to offer information that might compromise a competitive advantage?

Wait, it gets better.

All the searches

Asking for the data is one thing; using it to determine the effectiveness of accidental porn viewing is another. Government lawyers have asked search providers for all the data relating to search terms and the sites users visited in the time period between June 1, 2005 and July 31, 2005.

There has yet to be a request for users' Internet Protocol or IP addresses that would identify users individually. Published court documents have indicated that a variety of search information has been requested. From complete indexed site lists to search terms and websites-- all with the intent of proving that web filters don't do the job and the strictest of controls must be implemented.
 
Historically, the fallout from negative publicity in the realm of consumer privacy online is nothing short of panic. We have new spyware/adware and cookie removal tools in the pipeline, and every week there's more news about compromised data. In an effort to have search sites do the heavy lifting in this suit, attorneys are merely fueling privacy paranoia.

And the ad dollars you rode in on

Privacy concerns are top of mind for internet users, and this translates immediately into a search provider's ability to generate revenue with targeted advertising.

Case in point: Upon receiving my shiny new computer this week, I had to download DivX player and Java Runtime environments. Both really wanted me to add either the Google Desktop or Toolbar, one of which came preinstalled in my machine.

Search behavior -- such as the terms used and the sites visited along with personally identifiable information kept in confidence -- will help define the future of search and search related advertising. The more we know about how users find what they need based on who they are, the better search will become.

Consumer confidence in how closely this information is guarded will determine how quickly we achieve search utopia.

When consumers hear that millions of records have been handed over, the details won't matter. The Justice Department isn't exactly being forthcoming about what they intend to with this data. A quick and quiet response to the subpoena with partial information may have been the best way to try and put it to bed, but that hope has been shattered by Google's defiance.

Have drill, will travel

It would take an asteroid the size of Texas to wake everyone up. Tell me you are using the online data to help hunt down terrorists and protect our homes. Tell me you want to show that malware and other intrusive forms of online terrorism are worth a series of federally funded programs to help stamp them out. Tell me the U.S. government is behind efforts to expand the global communication network and help bring the world's people together so we can concentrate on not killing one another.

Tell me anything but that you are trying to support an anti-porn law.

Google's mission in protecting its intellectual property and the rights of its users no doubt coincides with protecting growth plans. Those plans rely upon increased customization and a better user experience that, moving forward, will require more data collection and analysis. The ultimate yield of these efforts will be a better advertiser experience. This is the experience we all want, but will be terrified to provide if a precedent is established that we have no rights to privacy.

Good luck Google. Tell 'em I said to stuff that subpoena up their T1.

iMedia Search Editor Kevin Ryan's  current and former client roster reads like a "who's who" in big brands; Rolex Watch, USA, State Farm Insurance, Farmers Insurance, Minolta Corporation, Samsung Electronics America, Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Panasonic Services and the Hilton Hotels brands, to name a few. Ryan believes in sound guidance, creative thought, accountable actions and collaborative execution as applied to search, or any form of marketing. His principled approach and staunch commitment to the industry have made him one of the most sought after personalities in online marketing. Ryan volunteers his time with the Interactive Advertising Bureau, Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization and several regional non-profit organizations.
 
Mr. Ryan is managing partner at Kinetic Results.

 

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