Web Search Faces Privacy and Censorship Issues

Opinion: The U.S. government's demands for user information and censorship in China makes it a rough beginning of the year for search companies.

In the realm of Web search, January was not a good month. We saw both disturbing government intrusions and disappointing private-sector concessions in the technology that transforms the digital plumbing of the Internet into a worldwide forum of community and commerce.

We believe its wrong for search engine providers to give up user information to governments, especially in the absence of appropriate authority to compel such release.

/zimages/6/28571.gifClick here to read more about Googling heading to court to protect users.

Thus, we oppose the Bush administrations attempts to obtain data on Internet users search activities, and we applaud Googles stand to resist those attempts, which were putatively in support of efforts to pass the COPA (Child Online Protection Act).

This and similar laws would impede legitimate activity more than they would limit childrens access to harmful content. Even if the COPA were the right way to go, its morally and statistically wrong to infer childrens access to pornography by profiling the activity of adults who are exercising lawful and constitutional freedoms.

The degree to which Web search providers turn out to possess identifiable archives is, in itself, disturbing. Keyword and click-trail records are tracks through cyberspace that users only dimly realize theyre leaving behind during routine search engine use.

"On the Internet," as the classic cartoon caption observed, "nobody knows youre a dog"—but Google knows that youre interested in dog food and also in pictures of dogs. Knowledge of individuals interests is valuable to vendors, but users become justifiably uncomfortable with these techniques if identities are also recorded—as they increasingly are.

It would be one thing if users could be confident of their power to partition their roles and identities, protecting their privacy while doing no harm to anyone else. However, identification and association take place in ways that users do not even see, let alone control.

/zimages/6/28571.gifTo read about how hackers are trying to get around Googles censorship in China, click here.

Its time to make data collection transparent and put the controls in users hands. Privacy policies must be written in plain language, not lawyerly gabble, and be presented with clear user options, not hidden in Web sites shadows.

We also believe its wrong for search providers to conceal network content at the behest of governments that are hostile to the open exchange of ideas. When Google agrees to limit search access in China, with feeble justifications that some access is better than none, it insults its own doctrine of "Do no evil."

Apologists might say Google is doing nothing more than what others have done. Microsofts Chinese Internet portal, for example, last year filtered words such as "freedom" and "democracy" to placate Chinese authorities—a practice we criticized in this space.

Its not easy to ask a company to take a moral stand that might be costly in legal hassles or lost revenue. Companies do respond to customers, however.

So, we urge enterprise users, as well as individuals, to give their eyeballs and their money to service providers that demonstrate commitment, internationally as well as at home, to a Net on which personal information is subject to personal control—and on which ideas are not embargoed by repressive regimes.

What do you think? Send your comments to eWEEK@ziffdavis.com.

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