BOB GARFIELD: In the novel 1984, George Orwell wrote, “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” In our anxious age of information and technology, some have seen the face of Big Brother, and they are calling him — Google.
According to Nielsen Online, the California based company, not yet ten years old, is now responsible for more than three-fifths of all Internet searches in the United States. Of course, Google doesn't just sift through information. It collects and compiles it too, which, as Boston Globe reporter Drake Bennett wrote recently, has some scholars and programmers pushing back. Drake, welcome to On the Media. DRAKE BENNETT: Thanks very much. BOB GARFIELD: So I go on and I do a series of searches during the course of a day, or a lifetime, and Google keeps track of all of that stuff. How long does it keep it and how can it connect it to me as an individual? DRAKE BENNETT: Well, it can connect you through cookies, which are these little lines of text that identify the computer that did this search. And Google and other ISPs do now put a time limit on how long they keep cookies and other identifying information, but they do have this record of what the search was and what computer did it. For the first year, year and a half, that can be traced back to you.
But the government, especially in the post 9/11 era, does have a frightening history of subpoenaing entire haystacks to locate potential needles. And, in 2005, Google itself was subpoenaed. Tell me about that case and how it turned out. DRAKE BENNETT: That was a big Justice Department investigation into child pornography. The Justice Department wanted information about what sort of search terms were popular. They wanted to make the case that a lot of people were looking for child pornography.
Google, more than any other of the companies that were subpoenaed, really pushed back and fought the case in court and ended up having to release a much smaller amount of information than the government originally wanted. So Google, if you ask them about privacy issues, will hold this up as an example of how they're going to really go to bat for you.
There are other ways besides subpoenas, though, that the federal government goes after information. One of them is National Security Letters. That’s a much lower profile thing and happens probably more often. BOB GARFIELD: And, in fact, had Google received any National Security Letters we would have no way of knowing that. It could have been forced by the government to surrender information and be legally bound never to disclose that the letter was ever even received. DRAKE BENNETT: Yes, exactly. That’s a very good point. It’s something we would not even hear about. BOB GARFIELD: Now, you mentioned how Google pushed back against the subpoenas in 2005. Others are pushing back against Google. For example, in Finland, an employer is not [LAUGHS] allowed to do a google search about a prospective employee. But there’s been other solutions for trying to stem the influence of this juggernaut. Can you go through some of them for me, please? DRAKE BENNETT: Sure. There are programs one can use or websites one can go through. One of them is something called TrackMeNot. Basically what TrackMeNot does -- it’s a Firefox plug in and every time you do a google search, it sends out three or four dummy searches based on, you know, what other people are searching at the time.
Google has no way of knowing which of those searches was your real search and which was the artificially generated one, and so it sort of creates this white noise and obscures your tracks.
Another thing that an increasing number of people are turning to is a site called Scroogle. You go to the Scroogle site and you type in your search query and Scroogle basically takes the search query and turns around and submits it to Google, so any attempt, any cookies that come back, don't make it all the way to you. They stop at the Scroogle site and Scroogle basically just throws them away. So it sort of serves as this buffer. BOB GARFIELD: We've been talking about privacy issues up ‘til now. You also wrote that there’s a new worry arising, and the worry is about what it means when a single company becomes the world’s doorway to the entire content of the Web. Those are mostly your words.
In what ways should we be concerned that Google has such dominance in the search sphere? DRAKE BENNETT: Unlike the other organizing systems for information that we've had in the past, like the Dewey Decimal System, for example, Google’s algorithm, the thing that decides what information is more and less important, is proprietary. It’s a secret. And there’s a worry that Google’s own agenda, because it is a profit making entity, could impinge there. For example, there have been a couple of cases, lawsuits against Google, where companies have accused Google, Inc. of basically blackballing them.
The SearchKing is perhaps the more telling case. It’s a company that marketed itself basically as a gamer of the Google algorithm. It sold a service to online companies that wanted to improve their Google ranking.
SearchKing, in its lawsuit, accused Google of basically kicking them out of the Google search results. And Google seems, in its response, to have basically admitted that it did so, although there’s some debate about that. But, more importantly, what Google said was - that’s none of your business. I mean, we get to decide how we rank information, and this is basically free speech. BOB GARFIELD: It makes some people think of the railroads, which were owned by private companies but which nonetheless, because they were essential monopolies and because they so influenced the public economy, the federal government regulated them. DRAKE BENNETT: It sort of gets at this larger question of, you know, what is a search engine? You know, do we treat them like newspapers, do we treat them like television stations or do we treat them like public utilities, where they're providing this service that people increasingly cannot live without and that, as a result, the government needs to decide the terms of access?
BOB GARFIELD: Drake, thank you. DRAKE BENNETT: Thanks a lot. BOB GARFIELD: Drake Bennett is a reporter for the Ideas section of The Boston Globe.