I've waited several days and thought quite a bit before saying anything about the Department of Justice asking search engines for search data. I waited partly because I didn't want to say something I'd regret, and that was pretty likely to happen early on. And partly because I wanted to see how the companies involved were going to handle the situation. Most did a very poor job.

I was initially tempted to post instructions and screen shots for each major search engine. They'd illustrate, step-by-step, how to sign out and search anonymously--you know, just in case. But that's a lot of work and all I really wanted to say was this: I'm disappointed.

I'm disappointed in the government for wanting to use the online behavior of millions of people in an attempt to justify a law that many of those million are likely against. I'm disappointed in them for making people even more fearful of "being tracked online" and the Bush Administration's attempts to keep an eye on the public.

I'm disappointed in those companies that appeared not to put up a fight, notify their users, or explain what happened in a timely fashion. I'm disappointed in them for not providing an opt-out mechanism. I guess that's everyone but Google so far.

I'm disappointed in the general public for jumping to conclusions about what happened before the story had really been worked out.

I'm disappointed in the media for helping to scare the public. They, like the government, appear to be doing what they're best at and that's pretty troublesome.

I hope that people will stop IMing, emailing, and otherwise asking me what I think of all this and what Yahoo's position is. In case it's not clear, I'm not speaking on behalf of anyone other than myself. And the Powers That Be have decided not to say much on the matter. So there you have it.

Posted by jzawodn at January 23, 2006 11:18 PM

Reader Comments
# Didier DURAND said:

Don't you think that Google's move (i.e resistance) is also a tactical move to improve its "love ranking" by end users?

I really think that it could be after E. Felten's conclusion on Google Video "Privacy is for Google what security is for Microsoft. At some point Microsoft realized that a chain of security disasters was one of the few things that could knock the company off its perch. And so Bill Gates famously declared security to be job one, thousands of developers were retrained, and Microsoft tried to change its culture to take security more seriously.
Itís high time for Google to figure out that it is one or two privacy disasters away from becoming just another Internet company. The time is now for Google to become a privacy leader"

See Felten's original post at http://www.freedom-to-tinker.com/?p=956

on January 24, 2006 12:16 AM
# Rob Sanheim said:

re: disappointment in the governement and the media. I'm not sure why you would expect anything else but fear mongering and ridiculous demands of private data from private companies.

I think the search companies' responses is the worst part of this whole thing. The scariest part is that if Google hadn't refused the DOJ then all this would've happened without any sort of public discourse or knowledge (just like the administration likes it, I suppose).

on January 24, 2006 12:39 AM
# Craig Hughes said:

For my take on this topic:

http://www.hughes-family.org/wordpress/2006/01/23/help-the-justice-department-out-via-greasemonkey/

Note that the google.com links in there could easily be replaced/supplemented with yahoo.com links for the Yahooists amongst us.

on January 24, 2006 12:41 AM
# Allan Rasmussen said:

"I'm disappointed in the general public for jumping to conclusions about what happened before the story had really been worked out."
Did the general public jump to any wrongful conclusions?

Didier Durand: Sure it was. But what difference does it make? They made the right choice, in my opion, and at the end of the day that's what counts.

on January 24, 2006 01:55 AM
# theCreator said:

I'm disappointed with all the companies that capitulate too, although as what one of the previous posters have said, I'm not sure what is Google's reason/intent in defying the government. Morality or just smart branding?

on January 24, 2006 04:25 AM
# Aaron said:

To be fair, DOJ DOES have subpoena power and, short of challenging a subpoena in court and getting a judge to issue a stay, every company involved behaved appropriately. Yahoo, MSN and AOL complied as they were compelled to and Google did what it felt was right to avoid it. No one did anyting wrong on this.

I think the real complaint is not with the search companies or DOJ... it's with the culture of the Executive branch of government. Do I think Bush was responsible for this? Only so much as he his head of the Executive branch. My feeling is is that he slapped his head in disbelief when this story surfaced.

I think that the DOJ request was probably on the up and up. It probably is not about getting any other information but data regarding the probability of children encountering porn on the web. That said, it is such a dangerous precedent to set and to allow.

Good topic, Jeremy, and I certainly don't want to drag this into political mudslinging. It just so happens that you dabbled in an area I enjoy! :)

on January 24, 2006 06:26 AM
# Jason said:

I'm still confused on how this is a privacy issue. There was no personal identifying information tagged to the results that were collected by the DOJ and supplied by the search engines.

Can someone explain how this is a privacy issue? To me it would be the same thing as the DOJ going to every radio station and asking what were the most requested songs from it's users over a 1-year period.

Or the fact that 4 out of 5 dentists recommend Trident. Is that a privacy issue? Who am I to need to know what kind of chewing gum dentists prefer?

on January 24, 2006 06:59 AM
# Jeremy Zawodny said:

What if the government learns that 50 people searched for "how to kill the president" and then ask for their names, addresses and phone numbers?

What then?

BTW, I'm not making this up. Someone else did and it got me wondering.

It's all about the slippery slope and the government using data that many feel *ought* to be private.

on January 24, 2006 07:03 AM
# James Day said:

Yahoo, MSN and AOL simply demonstrated that they were less worthy of consumer trust than Google. I assume that those companies are also more likely than Google to be supplying complete search histories or targetted search histories without due process first in other situations.

Yes, _with cause_ it's possible to get a court to order disclosure. But it's worth having the government pass that hurdle of showing cause before providing data.

In the airline industry, this disclosure on request without proper checks is part of the repeat scandals of airlines disclosing passenger data which helped to doom the CAPPS II system.

Of course, this particular request will simply show that adult content is extremely popular and there will be a tremendous restriction of adult access to that content if the government achieves its objective and thereby blocks search engine access to much of what people are searching for.

on January 24, 2006 08:15 AM
# PeanutsPeanuts said:

Here's a radical thought: why doesn't Yahoo release the information (that it gave to the DOJ) to the public? Just give the file to the public and say "Here! This is what we gave them. Happy?".

This is assuming Yahoo is in the right, and there was no private information in that list.

on January 24, 2006 08:25 AM
# Jeremy Zawodny said:

The SEO community would be all over that like... well, insert your own analogy here.

I bet that MSN, Google, and Ask Jeeves would love to see it too.

on January 24, 2006 08:48 AM
# PeanutsPeanuts said:

"The SEO community would be all over that like... well, insert your own analogy here."

Like a fat kid over ... ? :-)

OK, fair enough.
How about releasing a small number of records to tell us WHAT information was released?
ALternately, how about bringing in a few neutral bloggers and showing them what was released?

on January 24, 2006 08:59 AM
# Narayandude said:


One thought.

So the only way we knew about this whole kerfuffle was
by Google forcing the DOJ to file a suit. Yahoo + co had
already complied silently earlier.

Does that mean that similar subpoenas have been issued
(and complied with) in the past without anyone knowing
about it since no one protested like Google?

Case (a): similar subpoenas have been served in the past
to all search engines, including both Yahoo and Google.
All complied silently.

Case (b): similar subpoenas have been served in the past
to only Yahoo and their subservient ilk.

Case (c): this is the first subpoena of search records
ever.

Is there some public record of subpoenas issued by
the DOJ that can be searched to determine this?

on January 24, 2006 09:18 AM
# Jeffrey McManus said:

Blaming the media is not appropriate in this particular case. It's not their job to make people feel good about the status quo. (That's the government's job.) If their reporting on the issue is accurate, and it appears to be, then they're in the clear as far as I'm concerned.

This episode does not prove that Yahoo is evil or Google is good (or more worthy of our trust). It's wrong for people to blame businesses when this kind of thing comes up because we all live in a society of laws -- the people who are driving this are in the government, and if we don't like it, then we need to work harder to make sure that the people who find themselves in positions of authority in government are worthy of our trust.

on January 24, 2006 10:20 AM
# Rob Sanheim said:

Narayandude: Similiar subpoenas have certainly been done in the past, but typically they were along the lines of "show us all searches done by this person (at this IP) because we have this cause". It was not so broad and far-reaching, and so typically would just happen silently.

I believe Batelle talks about this in _The Search_.

on January 24, 2006 10:34 AM
# grumpY! said:

>> when this kind of thing comes up because we all live in a society of laws

not sure how you can say this as a defense of what is clearly a request not passing from legislation but only as a call for supporting data for an initiative by the current adminstration.

>> the people who are driving this are in the government

the executive branch is not the government.

>> then we need to work harder to make sure that the people who find themselves in positions of authority in government are worthy of our trust

the exact and specific point google is making and will likely succesfully defend is that the authority you claim in fact does not exist.

one day goerge bush will be gone, and his initiatives to establish government purview over your web surfing habits will also be gone, but what will remain for these firms is an air of mistrust.

on January 24, 2006 10:43 AM
# grumpY! said:

>> To be fair, DOJ DOES have subpoena power

but this is a new, broad context for the application of these powers which should be challenged in court.

the DOJ is part of the executive branch. the executive branch is not the government. there are grounds for a challenge.

if google is succesful, users will have greater assurances of privacy.

if google is not succesful, at the very least the government may be forced to divulge how exactly it intends to use this data, resulting in greater transparency.

either way, regular people who have almost no recourse on unchecked power win in some way by having this action challenged.

we are crossing fundamental lines that will be very difficult to pass back over later, if not impossible. this isn't about being loyal to your employer, it is about the kind of society you want to live and work in.

on January 24, 2006 10:53 AM
# James Day said:

Jeremy, does Yahoo have publicly available data retention policies for IP addresses or cookie or otherwise stored ids which could be used to determine an IP the next time a specific computer connected with a specific search visited Yahoo Search again? That is, IP leads to connection which leads to person, so what are the basic things like retention periods for such personally identifying information?

Personally identifying information in this context means anything an investigation of any form could use to get to the identity or likely identity of a person.

on January 24, 2006 12:16 PM
# Gradiva Couzin said:

About 10 years ago, I think it was in Indiana, there was an attack on a Jewish home displaying a Menorah. I remember that the local paper responded by publishing a double-page spread graphic of a Menorah, and hundreds of homes throughout this small community cut out the image and displayed it in their windows.

Can the SEM community launch a campaign to make the Govt's snooping pointless by running searches on hot button topics ("Osama bin Laden is a hottie", anyone?) that will work the Echelon-borgs up into a self-destroying frenzy of surveillance? Just wondering....

Gradiva

on January 24, 2006 12:23 PM
# said:

Alright folks...here's what the perverbial freak thinks...

I completely agree with Jeremy except for one thing. I am a little disappointed in the responses from the executives of the companies who have responded.

And I can't be disappointed in this adminstration's handling of this incident.

This is a government formed by liars, cheats, and thiefs.

The worst part is that so many people out there are so mentally bankrupt, that they actually think that this kind of thing is okay.

I'll say this...if your kid has a pc in their room and they go in and close the door, then there is no one to blame for what they are viewing but the parent.

Kids are kids. They don't have a right to privacy or to conduct themselves behind closed doors.

As their parent, you have the obligation to insure that you keep them away from these materials but the rest of us do not have to suffer because you don't want your kid seeing something they are going to see and probably do, in a few short years anyway.

What i'm saying is...be a parent. Quit letting PC's, Video Games, TV shows, movie theaters, and malls be your baby-sitters.

Get your kids away from the TV, give them some chores and responsibility and make sure that it is done and followed through on.

on January 24, 2006 12:48 PM
# Jeffrey McManus said:

GrumpY!, you really believe the executive branch is "not the government?" What country do you live in?

on January 24, 2006 12:50 PM
# Monish said:

Hi Jeremy,

OMG! I just read that you were a student here at BGSU! You're the most famous person I know who's studied here!

So, when are you going to drop by and pay us a visit? =)

on January 24, 2006 12:59 PM
# Jeremy Zawodny said:

That might just be the most depressing thing I've heard about BGSU recently.

Or not.

Yes, I did attend BGSU from 1992-1997. I was on the 5 year plan (co-op time included).

on January 24, 2006 01:12 PM
# grumpY! said:

>> GrumpY!, you really believe the executive branch is "not the government?" What country do you live in?

the same one as many members of Congress and the Senate who have challenged executive power claim to live in - one ruled by the balance of power described in the Constitution, not by any single branch of government.

we have choices. the Constitution does not compel us to yield to power, in fact it specifially addresses our defenses against unchecked power.

but if you prefer kings, there are still a few holdouts out there in the world that would welcome you.

"the subject who is truly loyal to the Chief Magistrate will neither advise nor submit to arbitrary measures" - Junius

on January 24, 2006 01:13 PM
# Richard Tallent said:

Whether these companies *gave out* the information is a moot point.

I'm disappointed that MOST search engine companies rolled over silently and did not publicly protest giving their data away based on a government request that is specious at best and that has no bearing on an active criminal or security investigation. It makes me wonder how they will handle similar requests in the future that *do* include identity information.

I'm disappointed that ALL search engine companies value my privacy so little that they *retain* my IP address and/or user cookie *attached* to specific queries, rather than "anonymizing" this data after the short period needed for advertising logic and intrusion detection. More:

http://www.tallent.us/blog/CommentView.aspx?guid=49025b52-644f-46d8-9e38-b888c2be0112

on January 24, 2006 04:18 PM
# Joe Hunkins said:

All good reasons to be disappointed. I'm also disappointed that the debate about this usually suggests Google is "protecting" me while they carefully monitor and save my data.

My concern is more with the fact that Yahoo & Google & MSN appear to be watching everybody so carefully than with the very small possibility the Government will *ALSO* get access to that info AND use it to abuse my privacy.

Most onliners are happily (naively?) sacrificing privacy to Google and Yahoo every day.

on January 24, 2006 07:19 PM
# Susan Kuchinskas said:

Jeremy, you said, "I'm disappointed in those companies that appeared not to put up a fight, notify their users, or explain what happened in a timely fashion. I'm disappointed in them for not providing an opt-out mechanism. I guess that's everyone but Google so far."

Let's be clear about exactly what happened:

1. All four search engines got (probably) exactly the same subpoenas back in August -- Google included. None of them, Google included, notified their users or explained.

2. None of the search engines "complied" with the original terms of the subpoena.

3. Yahoo, MSN and AOL ultimately gave the Feds info quite different than what was asked for.

4. The Motion to Compel Google to cough up says the Feds' final offer came after "lengthy negotiation." It's not clear whether Google's side of that negotiation was simply, "No. No. No." or whether there was something they were willing to do but it wasn't enough for the Feds.

That's not to say I'm not disappointed, outraged and scared by the whole mess. I just don't think Google is so saintly.

Joe Hunkins has it right, IMHO.

on January 25, 2006 05:45 PM
# Andrew S said:

Google certainly isn't saintly. I wrote up my opinions on Google's new China site here:

http://lart.stanford.edu/~shandrew/google-cn-propaganda.html

on January 26, 2006 02:08 AM
# Patrick Mullen said:

Once you connect to the Internet, you lose your privacy. That is how the Internet is built.

End of story.

on January 26, 2006 11:55 PM
# Sam said:

I've been watching this as well and find the concerns by the citizens lost in smut. These are my opinions and not up for debate.

First, the only time a search engine knows how the heck you are is when you log in and then do a search. That then tags personnally identifiable information to the search. So, if people are really concerned with others learning their nasty and illicit behaviors then they should do it annonymously. Otherwise you have no privacy rights to protect because States have the right to request information about who from their State is looking at child smut or any other smut. Oklahoma for example has a law that makes it illegal to have any movies or materials showing penetration and child smut. You'll do serious time.

Second, there's nothing wrong with providing aggregated information under for any legal reason. Assuming so is a clear indication that you have a guilty conscious and should stop looking at child smut. LOL

Third, Google was not protecting their users. They were attempting to protect their own personal/corporate privacy with the assumption that with all the requested information someone could do enough research and determine their algorithm. The US government has no desire to do that. They are simply attempting to perform a much needed service by protecting our children from illicit behaviors.

Fourth, I commend the other search engines in complying with the request of the US Judicial System. Assuming Bush was responsible is a flagrant miscarriage of justice. Congress which is the legislative body is promoting the issue in an attempt to clean up our country of the massive moral decay we face.

Fifth, just to throw religion in here, this country was founded on Christian values with an attempt to not demand people practice a particular sect. It was not founded by a bunch of atheists going around committing henious acts with children.

I hope Google loses a lot on this as people begin to realize that it's not their privacy but Google's privacy Google attempts to protect.

on January 27, 2006 03:57 PM
# pwb said:

I'm not really worried about this request as an immediate privacy threat although the slippery slope is disconcerting.

What I do not understand is how the government can make such a request to entities that have nothing to do with the matter. Could not the goverment obtain this material on the open market from a provider such as compete.com?

on January 30, 2006 12:23 AM
# Alex said:

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Very nice, beautiful and interesting blog!
I enjoy reading your blog... keep it up guys!
Respect you!

on February 6, 2006 02:57 PM
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