Monday, January 23, 2006

Privacy slowly fading from our vocabulary

So as you may have read, the Attorney General issued subpoenas to the major search engine companies for search data. Was this to fight terrorists? No. The government attorneys insist they need this to fight kiddie porn. Yahoo is caught not looking too good. They complied with the order as did other unnamed search engines. And who refused? Good old Google! Boy these guys are just smarter than everyone they compete with aren't they?

So here's Big Media's take on it. They are all caught up in privacy issues and going through their Rolodex of the usual "privacy advocates" who are so good at hand-wringing. I accept Yahoo's explanation that there is no user information involved, just raw search data and am not at all concerned that guys in green eyeshades will be poring over my own search data.

But of course, that's not the point. The real issue is this:

By what Constitutional authority does the Government have the right to demand that these private companies hand over their data? This isn't for the purpose of prosecuting any one individual. They say they just need the information "to prepare its case to revive the 1998 Child Online Protection Act, which the Supreme Court blocked from taking effect two years ago."

If this was a narrower subpoena aimed at specific suspects, it would appear to me to be more defensible. Likewise if this was a national security issue, I'd think "maybe."

We'll never know but I also wonder if they wouldn't have been better off approaching these companies and requested their collaboration. Google, Yahoo et. al. might have shared the results of what they found without giving up raw data. I don't think Google wants to appear to be soft on child pornography. They just don't respond well to pressure and I admire them for it. Google appears to be within its rights to refuse and not only that, chalk up yet another marketing win. It must be pretty nice to be getting media coverage about their refusual while Yahoo appears to have sold out their customers, even though I don't think that's really the case.

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