If you've not been living under a rock the past week or so, you've likely heard one or two (or a thousand) people comment on the battle that is raging between Google and the Department of Justice. While news and commentary on the situation has been flying around the media world at lightening speed, the majority of casual Internet users still seem to be having a difficult time grasping just what all the fuss is about.

What the Government Wants

To put the motive behind the government request in simple terms, the Department of Justice is looking to defend the 1998 Child Online Protect Act (COPA) (which was blocked in court) by gathering data from the major search engines to find out just how much "adult" activity happens online and what the chances are that a minor might stumble across it.

The government's original request to Google was to produce a record of all URLs contained with the search engine's massive index along with the full records of every search query conducted during a one month period. After some negotiations, the government came back with a request for a random sampling of one million URLs and a single week's worth of search queries.

The government claims that by collecting this data, they will be able to better understand how easy it is for minors to accidentally locate pornography online. The Department of Justice also says that it is seeking the data in order to create support for their assertion that COPA needs to be revisited and that current methods of protecting children from pornography are failing.

(Search Engine Watch has copies of the DOJ documents (along with summaries) available for download at their web site. )

Why Google is Fighting

There are several reasons that have been given to explain Google's resistance to following the lead of other search engines in handing over the data. From talk of privacy concerns to claims that the data would compromise trade secrets, to a simple public relations issues, speculation has been rampant.

There's also the not easily discounted theory that Google, which makes most of its revenue from the contextual ads that run along side search results, stands to lose quite a bit of income if the online pornography industry shrinks.

There's also the issue of the data disclosing just how far reaching the adult industry is on the web. A Forbes article that talks about why Google doesn't want to give in features the following quote:

A public disclosure of exactly how much pornography is on the Internet and how often people look for it--the two data points that will result from fulfilling the government's subpoena--could serve to make the Internet look bad. And Google, as its leading search engine, could look the worst.

My guess is that the real issues here on why Google doesn't want to comply are two-fold. First, it's going to take a decent amount of work to get that data put together. That's time and money that Google would have to spend on something that isn't going to help them in the slightest, and that might actually hurt them in the long run. Besides, why should Google put together the research that the government should be gathering itself? It's not as if DOJ officials couldn't spend some time watching children surf and noting how often they accidentally ran into adult content.

Second, now that Google knows that the government has already gotten similar data from their competitors, there's simply no reason for Google to add it's own data to the mix. That means that the issue has now become a power struggle between Google and Uncle Sam and Google has no interest in being told what to do.

Why Americans are Freaked Out

What's made this story so newsworthy goes far beyond the simple "should they" or "shouldn't they" arguments that are being bandied about in the press. The real reason that this story is being splashed all over the papers is the fear that lies in the hearts of most Americans when they hear about the government gathering data on Internet search habits.

In fact, the San Francisco Gate featured the results of a study today that claim 56% of Internet users don't want Google to turn over data to the government and that roughly a quarter of them claim they'd stop using Google if they did comply. The problem here is that most of the people interviewed likely have no idea what the government is asking for or what Google would actually be giving up. I'd also be curious to know if that quarter has now stopped using MSN, AOL and Yahoo! since those engines did choose to turn over the data.

Based on the survey responses, it's also becoming clear that the majority of Americans aren't getting the entire story behind what's going on here. I've spent some time skimming discussion forums, articles and blog posts and have seem comments that range from "the Bush Administration wants to control the Google search results" to "Google is going to rat out the folks that search for porn" to "Who cares, it's just a bit of data."

All this fuss is made pretty clear by another survey result that hasn't gotten as much press. Apparently, 77% of those surveyed didn't realize that Google could track who searches for what. Thus, the survey results tell me that what most Americans really fear is not the government getting Google data, but the sudden realization that someone knows that they've been searching for porn.

Why it's a Moot Point Anyway...

When you think about it though, the whole thing is pretty silly. The government is asking Google (and the other engines) to provide a random sampling of 1 million web sites from their database. They're also asking for a full week's worth of queries. Now, I don't know about the rest of you, but as someone who has been online for more than a decade now, I can save the government a lot of time, money and legal headaches by saying "Yes, there's porn on the Internet. In fact, there's a TON of it."

Why the federal government think that the data from Google is suddenly going to confirm the existence of porn is beyond me. Even more important to note, the government claims that they are seeking the data in order to learn how easy it is for children to access adult content online, yet the data that they have requested in no way provides this information. A random sampling of sites from an index does nothing to tell you how often any of those sites pop up, nor does it tell you what phrases they pop up for. Additionally, a listing of search queries tell you nothing if you don't know who conducted the queries. The DOJ has no way to know what percentage of those adult searches are being conducted by children, thus the data will do little to tell them what they claim to want to know.

Much of the hype going on in the story is much ado about nothing. While there's little harm on the privacy front in Google sharing the data, there's also absolutely nothing to be gained by the government if they do so.

If people are worried that someone will find out they are searching for porn, they should stop searching for porn. If the government wants to find out how many porn sites come up when certain searches are conducted, they should hire someone to do the searches and compile the data themselves. If Google wants to harp on and on about how they won't be "evil" and comply with the government, that's fine, but they should stop profiting from the sale of terms related to illegal activities. (Yes, they do have ads showing up for some variations of child porn.)

For more in-depth commentary on the progression of the story, check out Danny Sullivan's excellent coverage over at Search Engine Watch.

Discuss this article in the Small Business Ideas forum.

January 24, 2006

Jennifer Laycock is the Editor of Search Engine Guide, the Social Media Faculty Chair for MarketMotive and offers small business social media strategy & consulting. Jennifer enjoys the challenge of finding unique and creative ways to connect with consumers without spending a fortune in marketing dollars. Though she now prefers to work with small businesses, Jennifer’s clients have included companies like Verizon, American Greetings and Highlights for Children.

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