Is the DOJ request that big a deal?

In my ongoing campaign to think the unthinkable (see previous posts on DRM and community media), I’ve been thinking about the privacy implications of the US Department of Justice’s request that the major search engines provide information on their indexes and what people have been searching for. The DOJ has apparently asked Yahoo!, Google, AOL and MSN to provide two things: a random set of a million or so search queries; and a random set of a million or so pages from their index. For a good round-up, check Newsweek’s Technology: Searching for Searches.

Apparently, Yahoo!, AOL and MSN have passed this data over to the DOJ, and are arguing that this was fine, since there was no personally identifiable info anywhere in the data – ie, the DOJ couldn’t have figured out what any individual had searched for by looking at the data. Google, though, is “vigorously opposing” any effort to hand over the info. It’s getting plaudits (from John Battelle, among others) for fighting its corner.

But again I smell butter and sugar, and we know that makes fudge. Because Google isn’t doing this for any ethical reasons, as it’s being given some credit for. It’s doing it for good old-fashioned legal and commercial reasons – specifically, that the case the DOJ is fighting and for which it wants the data has nothing to do with Google, and therefore, for good old-fashioned commercial reasons, Google isn’t going to comply. It wants to keep its data secret. So the irony is that Google is getting praise for protecting privacy when all it’s doing is being secretive.

“Privacy advocates” are meanwhile criticising the DOJ and the compliant search engines. They’re apparently using the “thin end of the wedge” argument. This from the Newsweek piece:

Though the government intends to use these data specifically for its COPA-related test, it’s possible that the information could lead to further investigations and, perhaps, subpoenas to find out who was doing the searching. What if certain search terms indicated that people were contemplating terrorist actions or other criminal activities? Says the DOJ’s Miller, “I’m assuming that if something raised alarms, we would hand it over to the proper [authorities].” Privacy advocates fear that if the government request is upheld, it will open the door to further government examination of search behavior. One solution would be for Google to stop storing the information, but the company hopes to eventually use the personal information of consenting customers to improve search performance. “Search is a window into people’s personalities,” says Kurt Opsahl, an Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney. “They should be able to take advantage of the Internet without worrying about Big Brother looking over their shoulders.”

Well, yes, it’s possible, but an awful lot of things are possible. But what if we turned this argument on its head? Wouldn’t it be good for society in general if everyone’s searches were available online (in an anonymised fashion, of course). Wouldn’t that oil the wheels of commerce, grease the efficiency of the free markets, and transform the nature of democracy? If I could see, quickly and at a glance, exactly what the world was searching for and thinking about, wouldn’t that be a good thing for the human race?

Of course it would. But it won’t happen. Not because of high-minded virtue or ethics. Because that kind of data is increasingly the stuff which new economy corporate values are built on. Google’s business model depends on matching advertisers with searchers, and it uses complex algorithms and extensive data-mining to do that effectively. Force Google to hand over its data, in whatever form, and you hit it directly where its main pain centre is: in its market valuation. Search data is the oxygen that the Google organism needs to breathe. So let’s not talk about privacy and high-minded morality, and let’s recognise Google’s stance for what it is: capitalism, red in tooth and claw.