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RETURN ON TECHNOLOGY: We need more Googles to take on government

July 10, 2006

As I write this, two of the biggest titans on the planet have just fought each other to a standstill. In one corner is the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). In the other corner, the search engine company Google.

In 2005, the DOJ wanted to revive the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), which had already been swatted down by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional. The law didn't address child pornography, as has often been assumed in the case, but only online pornography sites that could be accessed by minors.

To bolster its position, the government wanted to quickly acquire huge amounts of data about Web site addresses (URLs) and the queries that led to them. The search engine companies America Online AOL, Yahoo and MSN were approached and they coughed up the data without a fight.

Google alone stood pat, saying the request was an invasion of privacy for users, an undue burden on the company, and an unconscionable attempt by the government to use a private company to do its heavy lifting. Others have written diatribes about the privacy issue. This one is about the last argument. Why should the government get a ride on the Google express?

I'm not unmindful that there are circumstances when businesses have to bow to the general good, as the federal government defines it. I just think they're rare. During World War II, many businesses quit making profitable consumer items and made war materials for considerably less revenue. But a pornography law that, despite its name, does little to protect children, and one which has bounced up and down the federal courthouse steps more often than Jack Abramoff, and to this day remains blocked by the courts, is not World War II.

Still, the Bush DOJ apparently believes it can rescue the legislation if it can get data from search engine companies. But it's unclear how a list of hundreds of millions of randomly chosen URLs and a month's worth of queries would prove anything. The DOJ doesn't exactly have a proud reputation, technologically speaking. As of just a few months ago, the DOJ still hadn't fully equipped FBI agents with e-mail addresses.

To be fair, the government volunteered to pay for any inconvenience to Google, but Google responded that DOJ couldn't compensate the company for loss of credibility, the strain on its technological resources, or the chance of revealing trade secrets, and couldn't guarantee that Google wouldn't be pulled deeper into the COPA mess. Nor could Google be certain the search strings wouldn't violate user privacy.

The government kept ratcheting back its demands, until it asked for only 50,000 URLs and a week's worth of search queries. Federal Judge James Ware finally gave the government its paltry 50,000 and no queries. To add to the insult, we taxpayers have to foot the bill to gather the URLs.

In his decision, Ware barely grazed an issue that deserves more consideration. To my mind, the Department of Justice's request to AOL, Yahoo, MSN and Google was pure hubris to start with, and the other search engines' cooperation was a decision the government should have been grateful for. I think Google had every right to refuse until and unless the government showed an overwhelming need for the data, which Ware couldn't find in the government's case. Apparently stung by Google's obstinacy, the DOJ resorted to force by subpoena. This was just arrogance piled on top of hubris. I suspect the fight from that point was due as much to testosterone as justice.

Private search engines are not the government's data-collection points. Google may appear to be a public utility, but it's not. It's a business, listed on the NASDAQ stock exchange and with an obligation to its shareholders. The government could devise its own search engine and riffle through its own queries, but federal officials know very well that nobody would use it.

First, it couldn't possibly compare to Google's functionality. Second, nobody would trust it. It's a sad statement perhaps, but a governmental search engine would likely sit utterly unused, if only because people are skittish about what use the government would make of whatever it picked up.

I worry that this wasn't just Google's fight. The government is showing evergrowing desires for third-party data to prove some point or another. Companies keep data secret for a reason, and it's nervewracking to me to think that the government is coming to think of private-sector data as its own, just a subpoena away.

The country has found out that the military is losing its data through simple theft at military bases in Iraq. I shudder to imagine how much the rest of the government could lose in Washington.



Altom is a senior business consultant for Perficient Consulting. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at timaltom@sbcglobal.net.
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