Google – Idiot Savant

Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between just plain lucky and good. As the story unfolds, Google is now in the position of being the people’s search engine. The ugly corporate giants Time Warner (via AOL), Microsoft and Yahoo have all kowtowed to the government and ‘cooperated’. Google, young and brash, is the people’s guardian of privacy. Are they this good or is this an intuitive decision at the corporate level.

But then you read the filings between the two sides in the legal wrangle and you get a different perspective. Google receives the original subpoena on August 25th, 2005. They receive an extension on responding and do so on October 10th. Their attorney, Ashok Ramani of the Keker & Van Nest firm, indicates that the original subpoena is defective. The argument is made (repeatedly) that the requests exceed the scope of the authorizing Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Basically, the response reads “You can’t compel us to do something beyond the legal framework you have used as a starting point. As we (for reasons described later) are not inclined to provide you everything, we will only provide what the framework authorizes you to request. Even more telling is Mr. Ramani’s last paragraph:

…Google objects because to comply with the Request could endanger its trade secrets. Dr. Stark’s involvement would require Google to disclose the approximate number of queries it receives on a given day, and some details about how it stores those queries…

Short of figuring out the system by which the airline industry calculates fares, I can’t conceive of anything more complex and convoluted then the confluence of attorneys, statistics and (the simplest leg of the tripod which is this story) the privacy advocates. It’s no wonder story after story is being published by technical press republishing each other’s stories. This stuff is denser then iron.

The fact is, you can spin this story a number of different ways:

  1. This is a titanic struggle between the forces of good and evil (you assign whomever you like to each party). Google is resisting the governments inclination to use the search engine data as an extension of it’s own power structure.
  2. This is a dispute originating from Google’s corporate culture. They are a very young company which has not had to deal with the Government in the past.
  3. This is a clever strategy by Google – waiting until after the other search engines comply to produce the impression that they care about privacy and other search engines do not.
  4. Google’s views it’s database as a corporate asset and interpretes the request in that light. You don’t simply give your assets to the government. Taxes yes, assets no.
  5. Google’s marketing staff saw the bear trap from a mile away and knew, given the topics on the public’s radar, that any disclosure of anything smelling of individually identifiable bits would trigger a nasty reaction.
  6. Google receives so much ad money from the online red light district that disclosing the actual statistics would open them up to attacks from the conservative community

The fact is, now that they have positioned themselves this way publically, they must see it through to it’s natural conclusion. They will eventually accede to the demands but only after they have stood on the shoulders of the other search engines and positioned Google as separate and apart from the pack.