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Search Engines and Censors: Who's Being Served?

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On this continent, Google is opposing a Justice Department effort to acquire data on its search queries. In China, Google and other search engines are complying with government demands to block access to some Web sites. Whose interests are being served?


To mix clich├ęs, where you stand can depend on where your bread is buttered. The search engine Google is resisting a government demand for information on one continent but complying, indeed, assisting government censorship on another. Google opposes a U.S. Justice Department subpoena that asks them and other search engines to send over every query typed into its database for a week without identifying the users. Justice is trying to redraft the Child Online Protection Act of 1998 which the U.S. Supreme Court halted in 2004 as intrusive. Engineers hope to use all those unsourced queries to figure out what kind of filter might block child pornography.

Thirty eight million Americans reportedly use the web to view pornography in December alone. I wonder how many people saw Holiday on Ice. Google says they worry about where that information may wind up but their biggest fear may not be the government. Google, like all search engines, sells itself to advertisers by compiling information about the people who use it - us.

Yahoo, AOL and Microsoft have complied with the subpoena but Google is the leading search engine by far. Releasing a million searches could reveal what Google has and why more advertisers buy that. It could be the equivalent of disclosing the recipe for Coca Cola. While Google goes to court against the U.S. Government, it is told the Chinese Government that it will block its users from seeing websites that regime deems subversive.

Those that advocate democracy, free speech and freedom of religion. A Google statement says while removing search results is inconsistent with Goggle's mission, providing no information is more inconsistent. In other words, somebody's going to make billions on internet service in China, it might as well be us. The other search engines are even more accommodating. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal report that Microsoft has removed even the word democracy from its China web. Yahoo actually helped the government identify a man who emailed pro-democracy messages and is now been sent to prison for 10 years. Chinese democracy advocates say that absolute censorship in China will be impossible.

How can censors monitor five hundred million internet users. They figure that arrests and crackdowns will occur, but dissent will find a way. But while Google is willing to fight a subpoena in the U.S. where it can hire fine lawyers, arouse a free press and stand a fair chance of winning, it is complying with a totalitarian regime that tells them to censor themselves or they can't do business. The great internet companies grew rich on the idea that information should be freely accessible not a reward for obedience. Being rich shouldn't make them meek.

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Simon Says

Simon SaysSimon Says

NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small

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