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Last Updated: Monday, 23 January 2006, 10:23 GMT
The browser and the ballot box
If we want to preserve our civil liberties in the networked world, then we have to assert them, argues technology commentator Bill Thompson.

Porn search on computer screen
US concerns over adult material are behind the Google request
On the surface it might seem that it has been a good month for those of us who care about civil liberties and our freedom to go about our daily business unobserved.

Google has gained some credit for refusing a request from the Justice Department of the US government to hand over a vast list of website addresses and search terms, especially since it seems that other search engines complied.

And in the House of Lords peers forced through amendments to the Identity Cards Bill that could make it much more difficult for the government to go ahead with its plans to create a national identity database that will track our every interaction with the state.

As ever things are a lot more complicated and much less reassuring when you dig a little deeper.

Data requests

The Justice Department wanted to create a vast database of search terms and websites so that it could do its own research on whether children are likely to come across the euphemistically-described adult material while they are searching the web.

The information would be used to support a legal appeal over the constitutionality of the Child Online Protection Act, a law passed in 1998 which required all commercial distributors of "material harmful to minors" to protect their sites from access by minors.

Bill Thompson
Both Google and the UK government are powerful interests who can't see why they should not be trusted, refuse to imagine the consequences if that trust was breached, and see commercial or political advantage in doing what they want

It was struck down by the courts, but the government is appealing, and wants to use search records from Yahoo, Google, Microsoft and America Online to show that the law would be effective and not restrict other forms of speech.

Google's reticence is heartening, especially since the company stores so much information about everyone who searches its site. If the US government gets into the habit of just asking for vast tranches of data when it feels like it, then we should all be worried.

However I would not put out the flags yet. For one thing, this very public fight hides the fact that search engines and ISPs are generally willing to hand over data to law enforcement agencies in pursuit of investigations.

Sometimes they don't have a choice. Under the Patriot Act the FBI can issue so-called national security letters to force ISPs to hand over personal data, and they are forbidden to tell anyone that they are doing so.

For all I know, the records of my searches on MSN are even now being pored over by a CIA analyst looking for evidence of untoward behaviour.

Life in the open

While I'm worried about search engines and what they know, I'm far more concerned about the records that the UK government proposes to keep.

Google sign
Google keeps track of every search term
Although most of the discussion around the Identity Cards Bill focuses on the cards which we'll be carrying around with us, the bill is really about creating the National Identity Register, a massive, comprehensive database that tracks every one of us throughout our lives.

It will store a vast amount of detailed information, including "particulars of every occasion on which information contained in the individual's entry has been provided to a person" and "particulars of every person to whom such information has been provided on such an occasion".

That means that the government will know, if it cares to look, about every time my identity is verified, not just when I'm claiming benefit or seeking NHS treatment but also when I sign up with a health club or enter a particularly paranoid company office or even, perhaps, turn up at my child's school for a meeting.

And of course it won't generally have to ask for access to that data, since it will be running the Register and has rejected proposals for an independent commissioner to prevent improper use of the information.

While the Lords may have voted for restrictions, it is likely that the government will use their Commons majority to overturn the amendments and go forward with the bill as planned.

Implicit bargain

In his recent book, Search, John Battelle, one of the founders of Wired magazine and a respected figure in the world of new media, pointed out just how much trust we are placing in online companies.

"As we move our data to the servers at Amazon.com, Hotmail.com, Yahoo.com, and Gmail.com, we are making an implicit bargain, one that the public at large is either entirely content with, or, more likely, one that most have not taken much to heart," he wrote.

"That bargain is this: we trust you to not do evil things with our information. We trust that you will keep it secure, free from unlawful government or private search and seizure, and under our control at all times."

It is worth asking why these databases are there in the first place, why Google feels the need to record every search term or why, as it seems, it will also be logging your account details every time you watch a video bought from its online video store.

Both Google and the UK government are powerful interests who can't see why they should not be trusted, refuse to imagine the consequences if that trust was breached, and see commercial or political advantage in doing what they want.

When it comes to search engines, we can do something about asserting our right to privacy. It would be nice to avoid them, but search is as much part of our daily existence now as reading, a core part of what it means to be literate in the connected world.

It means we have to learn how to search wisely, remember to delete cookies and anonymise requests and look after ourselves online.

And when it comes to the government, it is not too late to let MPs know that the proposals are flawed, dangerous and almost certainly vastly more expensive than claimed.

It may be time, whether through the browser or the ballot box, to remind the private and public creators of these vast databases of the continuing importance of individual freedom.


Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital



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