Wednesday, January 25, 2006

After Subpoenas, Internet Searches Give Some Pause

There are two articles that have come out in the last couple of days that have me worried. Here is the first one from The New York Times:

Kathryn Hanson, a former telecommunications engineer who lives in Oakland, Calif., was looking at BBC News online last week when she came across an item about a British politician who had resigned over a reported affair with a "rent boy."

It was the first time Ms. Hanson had seen the term, so, in search of a definition, she typed it into Google. As Ms. Hanson scrolled through the results, she saw that several of the sites were available only to people over 18. She suddenly had a frightening thought. Would Google have to inform the government that she was looking for a rent boy - a young male prostitute?

Ms. Hanson, 45, immediately told her boyfriend what she had done. "I told him I'd Googled 'rent boy,' just in case I got whisked off to some Navy prison in the dead of night," she said.

Ms. Hanson's reaction arose from last week's reports that as part of its effort to uphold an online pornography law, the Justice Department had asked a federal judge to compel Google to turn over records on millions of its users' search queries. Google is resisting the request, but three of its competitors - Yahoo, MSN and America Online - have turned over similar information.

The government and the cooperating companies say the search queries cannot be traced to their source, and therefore no personal information about users is being given up. But the government's move is one of several recent episodes that have caused some people to think twice about the information they type into a search engine, or the opinions they express in an e-mail message.

The government has been more aggressive recently in its efforts to obtain data on Internet activity, invoking the fight against terrorism and the prosecution of online crime. A surveillance program in which the National Security Agency intercepted certain international phone calls and e-mail in the United States without court-approved warrants prompted an outcry among civil libertarians. And under the antiterrorism USA Patriot Act, the Justice Department has demanded records on library patrons' Internet use.

Those actions have put some Internet users on edge, as they confront the complications and contradictions of online life.

How much of a right does the government have in spying on its own citizens? In order to combat porn, the government is asking for Google, Yahoo, MSN, and AOL to turn over their search engine records, and yet the government is claiming that such search engine inquiries cannot be traced back to the original source. If that is true, then why is the government asking for such search engine inquiries, except to find out who is looking at what sites? Throw in the illegal NSA wiretapping, the Justice Deptartments demands for library records on internet usage, and datamining on domestic Americans, and you have the modern makings of a police state--First and Fourth Amendment rights to be shredded. This is scary. These government powers can not only be used to catch terrorists or sex predators, but also for political purposes--who is to say that the Justice Department can't look into who is surfing a political activist's website, or scroll through an opposing candidate's emails? Who is to say that the NSA isn't spying on individuals who opposes the Republican Party, or the Bush White House? Are we suppose to sit back and agree to the Bush administration's assurances that they are not spying on political enemies? President Bush is now calling this NSA domestic spying program, a "terrorist surveillance program." I'm sorry, but that doesn't reassure me.

Of course, Google isn't the angle in a white hat as depicted here. Continuing on with the Times story:

Google is citing a number of reasons for resisting the government's subpoena, including concern about trade secrets and the burden of compliance. While it does not directly assert that surrendering the data would expose personal information, it has told the government that "one can envision scenarios where queries alone could reveal identifying information about a specific Google user, which is another outcome that Google cannot accept."

So that's Google's reason for not cooperating with the US government in turning over records. But now, here's an Associated Press story to give you some pause:

SHANGHAI, China - Google Inc. launched a search engine in China on Wednesday that censors material about human rights, Tibet and other topics sensitive to Beijing--defending the move as a trade-off granting Chinese greater access to other information.

Within minutes of the launch of the new site bearing China's Web suffix ".cn," searches for the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement showed scores of sites omitted and users directed to articles condemning the group posted on Chinese government Web sites.

Searches for other sensitive subjects such as exiled Tibetan leader the Dalai Lama, Taiwan independence, and terms such as "democracy" and "human rights" yielded similar results.

In most such cases, only official Chinese government sites or those with a ".cn" suffix were included.

Google, which has as it's motto "Don't Be Evil," says the new site aims to make its search engine more accessible in China, thereby expanding access to information.

Yet the move has already been criticized by media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, which also has chided Yahoo Inc. (Nasdaq:YHOO - news) and Microsoft Corp.'s for submitting to China's censorship regime.

"When a search engine collaborates with the government like this, it makes it much easier for the Chinese government to control what is being said on the Internet," said Julien Pain, head of the group's Internet desk.

Talk about hypocrisy here.

Google doesn't give a crap about this motto "Don't Be Evil." It is all about profit--China has hundreds of millions of web surfers, and Google wants to break into the Chinese search engine market. So Google will sell its soul to the devil--in this case, the Chinese government--and allow the government to censor Google's new Chinese website. Of course, Yahoo, and Microsoft is also allowing the Chinese government to censor their Chinese websites as well for the sake of breaking into the Chinese market. Continuing on:

However, technology analyst Duncan Clark said such criticisms probably wouldn't generate problems for Google's business elsewhere, given weak responses to previous cooperation between foreign Internet companies and Chinese authorities.

Past incidents "haven't seemed to gel into anything that could dissuade Google," said Clark, the managing director of Beijing-based consultancy BDA China Ltd.

Chinese Internet users said Mountain View, Calif.-based Google Inc.'s move was inevitable given Beijing's restrictions on the Internet, which the government promotes for commerce but heavily censors for content deemed offensive or subversive.

"Google has no choice but to give up to the Party," said one posting on the popular information technology Web site PCONLINE, signed simply "AS."

Google's move was prompted by frequent disruptions of the Chinese-language version of its search engine registered under the company's dot-com address in the United States.

Government filtering has blocked access or created lengthy delays in response time.

Google's senior policy counsel Andrew McLaughlin defended the new site as better serving Chinese customers.

"In deciding how best to approach the Chinese, or any market, we must balance our commitments to satisfy the interests of users, expand access to information, and respond to local conditions," McLaughlin said in an e-mailed statement, .

McLaughlin said search results would be removed based on local laws, regulations or policies.

"While removing search results is inconsistent with Google's mission, providing no information (or a heavily degraded user experience that amounts to no information) is more inconsistent with our mission," he said.

There was no indication that Google would disable access to its .com site within China.

McLaughlin said the company wouldn't host its e-mail or blogging services in China that can be mined for information about users, and would inform users if information had been deleted from searches. Such messages appeared in searches for Falun Gong and other sensitive topics.

Clark said Google likely hopes to avoid the bad publicity incurred by Yahoo last year after it provided the government with the e-mail account information of a Chinese journalist who was later convicted of violating state secrecy laws.

"They want to avoid those kinds of headlines," he said.

So Google is refusing to allow the US government access to internet search records, but they allowed the Chinese government access to an email account information of a Chinese journalist who was convicted of violating Chinese secrecy laws. More hypocrisy here.

These stories give me concern about how far our individual freedoms, rights, and protections are being eroded for the benefit of both government and corporate interests. The US government wants access to internet company records regarding internet search databases, while the Chinese government wants the internet companies to censor political sites from Chinese citizens in return for greater access to the Chinese internet market. Now I know you're going to counter, "but wait--the US government doesn't censor websites." No, but consider this December 10, 2005 story from

Ford Motor Co. executives will meet early next week with leaders of gay rights organizations to discuss the automaker's decision to pull advertisements for its Land Rover and Jaguar lines from gay publications, a Ford spokesman said Friday.

"We look forward to the dialogue with the leadership of the gay community," said spokesman Mike Moran.

Matt Foreman, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said the group will ask Ford to explain why it dropped the ads and encourage company officials to reconsider the decision Monday.

The meeting between the automaker and leaders from 19 gay rights organizations will come one week after those organizations issued a joint statement decrying media reports of a "confidential agreement" between Ford and the conservative American Family Association.

In May, the association called for a boycott of Ford because of the automaker's sponsorships of gay events such as pride celebrations, donations to gay rights organizations and diversity workshops for managers that included sexual orientation training.

The association also called for boycotts against Walgreen Co. and Kraft Foods for those companies' sponsorship of the Gay Games.

Late last week, another conservative group, Focus on the Family, closed its accounts at Wells Fargo because the bank had donated money to a gay rights organization that announced it would use the money to "fight the anti-gay industry."

Ford acknowledged Monday that it was dropping its ads in gay publications, just days after the American Family Association officially ended its boycott of the automaker.

"They've heard our concerns; they are acting on our concerns," Donald Wildmon, chairman and founder of the association, said in a statement announcing the end of the boycott. "We are pleased with where we are."

On Monday, Moran said Ford would no longer advertise the Land Rover and Jaguar lines in gay publications, although the Volvo brand would continue to do so. He said the move was intended to cut costs and downplayed the impact of the boycott on the decision.

A Ford company statement released this week said the automaker's "commitment to diversity as an employer and corporate citizen remains unchanged. We have employment policies that are second to none regarding our commitment to inclusion. Any suggestion to the contrary is just plain wrong."

The government doesn't have to enact censorship laws in this country--conservative and religious right groups are showing they have the power to push censorship of views and ideas that are opposite of their ideology, by targeting boycotts against companies. A Republican-controlled conservative government can just sit back and allow these right-wing ideology groups push for censorship for their own benefit. Either a government-imposed censorship, or ideology groups that are allied to a government which imposes censorship, both groups are responsible for eroding our individual rights.

This scares me.

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