The benevolent search engine-that-could was showered with boos this week, after it agreed to cooperate with Chinese government censors. To many, the move signaled a complete turnaround from the principled stand Google has taken against the U.S. government. But even in that skirmish, legal scholar Tim Wu was less than impressed with Google. He tells Bob how the company made itself vulnerable to government intrusion in the first place.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. This week Google launched its Chinese website and immediately found controversy. That's because Google, along with other leading search engines, agreed to submit to Chinese censorship rules. The company defended its decision, saying the new service expands access to information for Chinese users, but not if you want information about say, the Falun Gong or Tibet. In fact, CNetnews.com found that Google's new China search engine goes even farther than Microsoft's and Yahoo's by restricting searches on teen pregnancy, homosexuality, beer – and jokes. On Wednesday, New Jersey Republican Chris Smith, who chairs a House subcommittee on human rights, called for a hearing to examine the operating procedures of U.S. Internet companies in China. "It is astounding," he said, "that Google, whose corporate philosophy is 'don't be evil' would enable evil by cooperating with China's censorship policies just to make a buck." Meanwhile, in a showdown with another government, Google is being widely praised for resisting a subpoena to turn over a week's worth of random searches. That government happens to be the United States, which, according to Columbia University professor Tim Wu, is seeking Google's search records to prove a point.
TIM WU: The reason they want these is it's in the context of a long-running litigation over the constitutionality of an anti-pornography law. And the government hopes to show how truly nasty the Internet is and how much people are looking for pornography and how hard it is to filter this stuff, to show that the Internet is truly harmful to minors, and therefore satisfy their constitutional burden. This is in the background of a government which keeps losing on its efforts to regulate porn on the Internet because of the First Amendment and they think this might be the magic trick.
BOB GARFIELD: Let's put aside for a moment the question of overreaching law enforcement and invasion of privacy and illegal search and seizure and all the other constitutional issues in play here. Why in the world does Google or any other search engine save this data to begin with?
TIM WU: Google, if you ask them, will explain that they use those search results to improve their product. For example, if you search for Condoleezza Rice, it's sometimes hard to know exactly how you spell Condoleezza, and if you get it wrong, Google will say, "Well, did you mean to look for Condoleezza Rice?” spelled correctly. So that's an example of the kind of functionality which is made possible by keeping the search records. The question is whether that kind of functionality [CHUCKLES] demands keeping your identifying information, namely your IP address. And we've seen over the last several years that IP addresses can be reliably linked to people. In other words, somewhere on these files is the potential to link every single search you've ever done with you, and I think that frankly scares [LAUGHS] a lot of people, including me.
BOB GARFIELD: There's two parties to be afraid of here, it seems to me. One is the U.S. government, which has shown an increasing interest for reasons of national security, and, in this case, child welfare, to get into our business, and then there's the search engine companies themselves, Google and AOL and Microsoft and Yahoo. I know everybody was going, "You go, Google!" for fighting this subpoena from the Justice Department, but other search engines did cooperate, and Google and other search engine companies have also cooperated with other governments, notably China, in censoring and monitoring and ultimately suppressing speech there. Can we trust the search engine world to protect us against further incursions by this or any subsequent American administration?
TIM WU: In general, I don't think we can trust the search engine industry, not because they're evil but because they have to listen to governments that ultimately have threats of physical coercion to which they are subject. One of the reasons that Google is even getting these commands from the United States government is because it's keeping these files in the first place. And so the real ethical questions for the search engine companies here are all about how vulnerable they make themselves to government's power of physical coercion. And I don't think there's been a lot of careful thinking about that problem, but as events are showing, that is the kind of thinking that's really important.
BOB GARFIELD: Now that people know that this data is out there, even if governments and search engines behave themselves, won't it already impinge on our freedom by simply changing the way we behave?
TIM WU: Freedom has a lot to do with how free you think you are. It's a psychological feeling. And I think that for a lot of people, the Internet has been an important outlet in their lives, particularly search engines. The idea that with typing a few terms you can learn about anything is really rather a revolutionary idea and a kind of freedom that delivers everything the Internet was supposed to. That's why I think it's time for companies like Google to step forward and say, "We are going to stand for the principle of a private search. We're going to stand for an iron-clad policy of never letting your search results get back to your name." We need people to be able to switch jobs, find cures for diseases, think about problems in new ways.
BOB GARFIELD: And even explore their own sexual perversities if they want, no?
TIM WU: You know, I think it's been an important outlet for people who really are considered deviants, and social policy tends to ignore them, but the outlet is the search engine. I think there's a lot of people who've been able to find out more about themselves. It's just a little piece of computer code, but for a lot of people, it's a gateway to a lot of important freedoms.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Tim. Well, once again, thanks very much for joining us.
TIM WU: Sure.
BOB GARFIELD: Tim Wu is a professor at the Columbia Law School and author of Who Controls the Internet?