Outrageous Outrage

It would be interesting to know how many Google searches were made last week for news about Google searches. Of course, you hardly needed Google to find it. It was everywhere. Even on the other side of the planet.

When the news broke that Google is launching a search service in China that will block any results the Chinese government deems unsuitable for its citizens, the outrage seethed on countless Web sites, including our own. "Boycott Google Now" screams the headline of an opinion piece by Dan Verton, a former Computerworld security reporter and a well-known author on security matters. True, Google is only doing what Microsoft and Yahoo have long done in China, Verton acknowledges. But, he says, Google deserves to be singled out because it's the "one company that could have made a difference in the lives of 100 million Chinese citizens by standing up and speaking out against online repression." Instead, it has "solidified the position of U.S. online search giants as firewalls to freedom."

Many in the U.S. will cheer that rhetoric, completely oblivious to its tragic shortsightedness. They'll echo the outcry without recognizing that we simply can't be content with changing the lives of the 100 million Chinese who have the incalculable good fortune of gaining access to the Internet. They'll be incapable of appreciating the fact that we need to change the lives of 1.3 billion Chinese. And the best way to make that happen is to engage China and to expose the Chinese people to whatever positive Western influences we possibly can. We don't need to agree with that nation's government to abide by its laws, any more than we need to agree with our own government to obey it.

And that's where last week's Google news gets disturbing. In defending the company's decision to launch the censored service in China, Andrew McLaughlin, Google's senior policy counsel, made this statement: "While removing search results is inconsistent with Google's mission, providing no information -- or a heavily degraded user experience that amounts to no information -- is more inconsistent with our mission."

However, Google's problem with inconsistency certainly isn't evidenced by its responses to search-data positions taken by the Chinese and U.S. governments. Whereas Google has acknowledged the Chinese government's right to block search results, it refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of the U.S. government's subpoena for information about search results. That refusal has unleashed yet more outrage, this time over suspicions that the government is out to identify Internet users searching for porn.

That's just nonsense. The government just wants a random sample of 1 million Web sites in Google's search-engine index and a list of all search queries made during a specific week. It's seeking the data to fight a challenge to the Child Online Protection Act. It has nothing to do with personally identifiable information, and even Google, when pressed, acknowledges that it's not a privacy issue.

Yet Google is capitalizing on the privacy hysteria in order to avoid setting the precedent of releasing internal information to the government. In doing so, it has put Microsoft, AOL and Yahoo -- all of which did the right thing by complying with the government's subpoena -- in the awkward and unfair position of having to defend themselves against unwarranted accusations of privacy breaches. If anyone should be bent out of shape, it's them.

The outrage stemming from last week's Google news was misplaced. That, in the end, is what's truly outrageous.

Don Tennant

Don Tennant is editor in chief of Computerworld. Contact him at don_tennant@computerworld.com.

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