January 28, 2006
Don't Be Google

By Debra Saunders

Google gives life to the Eric Hoffer observation, "People who bite the hand that feeds them usually lick the boot that kicks them."

Google painted itself as heroic in refusing to help the U.S. Department of Justice's efforts to reinstate a 1998 federal Child Online Protection Act, then revealed that it was going to help the Chinese government suppress free speech. That sort of goes against the company's informal corporate motto, "Don't be evil."

I realize how eager those in the Bay Area are to believe that the evil Bush administration wants to double as Big Brother and eavesdrop on well-meaning peaceniks. So it doesn't matter that the DOJ isn't looking for information on individual accounts -- but instead wanted data on how the Internet is used during a given week to see how users access porn.

Personally, I'd be more supportive of the Department of Justice's subpoena if the feds were trying to locate specific individuals -- child-porn-aholics, for instance -- just as I would support a government subpoena for bank accounts used to launder mob money. My issue with the subpoena -- and I agree with Google on this -- is that it asks for a huge chunk of information to support the government in a civil suit. It's a fishing expedition, in which corporate America provides free research. Yahoo and Microsoft, however, were able to comply. A Yahoo spokesperson said the company did not release personally identifiable information.

Care about rights? Be it noted that exposing children to porn on the Internet violates their parents' rights. Still, Google emerged from the controversy as a defender of privacy. Columnist Robert Scheer in Wednesday's San Francisco Chronicle duly lauded Google's refusal to comply with the Justice Department's request, as he wrote that the "latest high-tech upstart giant dared to challenge the government's claim of an unbridled right to break into our information-age virtual homes." The Washington Post's Eugene Robinson described the subpoena as "more of an Orwellian threat than the National Security Agency's snooping on phone calls and e-mails."

You have to marvel at Google's great marketing ploy. The company amasses founts of information on users of its service. Yet, by riding on the coattails of anti-Bush sentiment, Google claims the mantle of champion of privacy rights. "We intend to resist (the government's) motion vigorously," said a Google lawyer in a statement.

All hail Google. The Google-philes fawn as if bashing the Bushies in the Bay Area is an act of courage, when it's the most popular -- and probably profitable -- thing a company can do.

Meanwhile, back in Beijing, Google has agreed to filter out sites that the Chinese government doesn't like. The Chinese government won't have to rely on its fleet of monitoring devices that block out "subversive" content from the West, such as information on the Tiananmen Square protest, Tibet and Taiwan. Google will do the dirty work.

The Mountain View, Calif., company will withhold e-mail and blogging services, it says, to protest the Chinese filtering. A Google statement explained that "while removing search results is inconsistent with Google's mission, providing no information" is "more inconsistent."

It may be only a matter of time before Google starts acting like other Internet providers that also censor for China. Last year, Yahoo helped the Chinese government prosecute a dissident reporter. This month, Microsoft shut down a pesky blog. As The Associated Press reported, Microsoft's service in China bars such terms as "democracy" and "human rights."

Here's a thought: Google could ban the phrase, "Don't be evil." I understand that Google wants to make a profit. I just don't know how company execs garner the image of little guys standing up to big, bad government.

Google can say no to the Bushies and know that it won't lose any business, its executives won't go to jail and their children will not get run over by tanks. In the country where those things could happen, Google is a collaborator.

Copyright 2006 Creators Syndicate

Debra Saunders

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