Search engines and governments

2006 has been bumpy so far for search engines. Earnings stumbles, foot-in-mouth disease by officers, and most of all issues around privacy and oppressive governments (both foreign and domestic). Add to this the fact that people hate and resent engines for the power of controlling the indexes, and feel obscurely ripped off for having their content indexed (even though they can stop it anytime), and you have the nice makings of a search engine backlash. 2006 might be less pleasant than 2005 for us in the industry, but it might be more interesting too.

With regard to government relations, I wish that engines could very directly lay out their relative priorities, in no uncertain terms, kind of like Asimov’s Laws of Robotics. Something like:

1) We will obey the laws of any country we do business in.
2) We’ll protect user privacy as agreed, except if conflicts with 1. (Remember this when you give us data.)
3) We’ll have fun, make cool new features, serve customers, and make lots of buckage, except if it conflicts with 1 and 2.

This is very simple, but of course oversimplified. Because there are two other things you could do instead of letting 1 trump 2.

a) Push back to whatever extent is possible under the law.
b) Bail on a market or country that has laws that are unacceptable.

So, first of all let me say: good for Google! No, not because they reacted to a U.S. DOJ subpoena by deciding to do stop doing business in the U.S. 🙂 But at least they showed some gumption by not immediately rolling over and coughing up the data, like some (all?) the other engines. And sure, it’s not at all clear that the reason they pushed back was to protect user privacy (the data requested, at least this time, was aggregated and anonymized as I understand it). Probably their primary motivation was just to not disgorge trade secrets. But who cares? This DOJ fishing expedition smells fishy to me, and I’m glad that someone is at least exploring legal paths of resistance.

China, China…. is a whole different matter. Yahoo! turns over user data, Google agrees to let its service be censored. As before, the alternatives are pushing back or bailing, but there isn’t a lot of pushback room in this system. (See this interestingly detailed account of how warrants are served on ISPs in China).

I do believe two things that engines are saying: 1) It’s probably better for China and its future political system to have limited, censored web search engines (with government snooping) than no web search engines at all (this is Google’s argument), and 2) the search engines are not going to abandon the Chinese market. I just darkly suspect that the two statements have nothing to do with each other. This is where stockholder obligations collide most starkly with company values, and I just don’t see how they will be sensibly reconciled. No inside knowledge, but I feel pretty confident in guessing that if Yahoo! does business in China then Google will too, and vice versa.

This is where it’s tempting to delude yourself with the power of the cartel: what if _all_ the U.S. Internet companies agreed on a minimal negotiating stance with the Chinese government, and all agreed to bail or stop out in tandem if it didn’t work out? (Hmm, ponder the fact that we’re already in joint-venture territory with Chinese companies…) Could the U.S. government actually help in this, by forcing U.S. engines to adopt such a stance? Could that be where the Congressional hearings are headed, instead of a lot of stupid questions, finger-pointing, and grandstanding? Don’t you hate it when you answer your own questions just by asking them?

Anyway, I have to say that all of this proves the early computer privacy advocates right in a sense: once the data is collected in the first place, all the good intentions and policy pronouncements in the world can’t prevent it from being forcibly disclosed later.