Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Search Questions

I’ve been following the discussion around search for a while. It’s a fascinating issue, but I’d be lying if I told you I understand it. Most folks happily type in all manner of search terms into their engine of choice and browse to whatever returns are offered, and they do so without thinking of the implications.

There are a couple of interesting nuggets to consider, however, that make this a curious affair. Google’s market cap is, as of this writing, $107.71 billion. The Department of Justice seems to have a keen interest on what terms people are typing into their search window. Clearly there’s value to the information the public plugs into these “free” tools.

I have many questions, and few answers. Random though they may be, here are my questions:

1. If my search terms are not traceable, why does the DoJ care? I know there's a lot of mumbo jumbo about simply wanting to look for patterns in search traffic, but it just seems like a canard to me. My opinion is that it’s all about setting precedent. I think the feds want to establish that precedent so that they can have easier access to this information in order to conduct more specific data forensics in the future.

2. Why would Google put up such a fight against the US government about cooperating in a supposedly innocuous scheme, but seemingly cave in to the demands of the Chinese government to engage in broad censorship? It appears to be a matter of pure greed, and it doesn't jibe with Google's "do no evil" morality statement. Evil isn't a matter of relativism, and we are judged by the company we keep. Not that Google should act as an arm of the U.S. Department of State, but if our national strategy to confront and beat Communism in China is to do so through economics, I’d like to see more cooperation. Censorship is antithetical to the idea of "do no evil." Period.

3. Why would Google et al want to indefinitely save my search terms, anyway? Unless there's a specific service they plan on offering, one that helps me find things if I have a pattern of looking for the same things over and over again (I keep hearing of such a service, but haven't seen it offered yet), the idea that an engine as popular as Google's would want to assume the cost and burden of saved search data seems without reason. There's got to be a purpose ($$) behind it.

4. Secrecy and inconsistency seem to be creating a growing sense of discomfort among consumers around the issue of search tools. Google takes most of the heat, but the fact is all the major players (and a ton of sketchy minor players) are engaged in aggressive strategies to use search as a foot in the door to consumer desktops. Spyware/malware/adware becomes part of this discussion as well, and that’s a topic no one but the so-called advocates want to raise. Secrecy doesn't engender trust. That's why people are finding it hard to trust either of the major entities in this debate. The feds haven't exactly covered themselves with glory on issues of personal privacy lately, and Google is clearly more about making large coin than they are about doing no evil.

I, like most computer users, use Google because it works and it seems to work better than most search services. I don't tend to enter sketchy search terms, so I don't think much about it, but I do wonder about it – moreso now than ever. I would be uncomfortable using Gmail, though, for these very reasons.

Personal communications are an issue where content is a very real concern, not because the content of my email would land me in hot water but simply because it's personal communication. Google still has plenty of questions around their Gmail policy.

The prevailing opinion is that the confrontation between Google and the DoJ over access to search terms was a calculation by Google to establish themselves as a champion on privacy and the little man. I think, however, that Google had already agreed to hand over the data requested by the feds - just as Yahoo!, MSN, and other search organs had already done, and changed their minds as a PR ploy. That's speculation on my part, based on the speculation of others. Too much is still not known to draw any solid conclusions.

I'm not close enough to the issue to know the answers, and I'm not so sure I've got all my facts square to even post this much, but it is a fascinating discussion and I’m curious as to what you all think.


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