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Search engines – Public or Private accountability?

Search engines – Public or Private accountability?

I’m one of these people who happens to value their privacy. Just like you do too no doubt.

Occasionally if the mood takes me, I’ll share a bit more about myself.

I’ll do a little meme or I’ll open up on an issue dear to me, maybe in a forum or some other persons blog perhaps. I’ll share my info with certain websites. I might enter a personal email or private address, credit card details, DOB that sort of thing.

The key issue is trust, I either choose or choose  not to trust  the site I am using, I decide whether or not I want to do business with them. That business can take the form of any number of the above described transactions, be it personal info private info or opinion, the bottom line is that its all my stuff, it comes from me, no one else owns or controls that, I’m a free man after all.

Keeping up with it all

We live in a fast changing world that moves at break neck speeds. In the world of technology its sometimes difficult to keep abreast of  the myriad of innovations that seem to constantly appear on the horizon. I like that, its cool it keeps me on my toes. I need to find out about it all too. I have a TV a Radio, I subscribe to the odd tech journal. I read newspapers, I listen to my friends and peers. I have a computer too (duh) and I use that to connect to the net with (double duh)  and yes at long last I hear you say, I use those things called search engines too.

In fact I use those search engines a great deal.

Search engines are vital to our lives

I benefit from search engines in lots of ways.

I could not function in the way I do without access to a search engine. They are fundamental to how my life is ran and structured.

Our world demands that to get on in it you need to be equipped with the skills and the tools required to successfully navigate your way around. For me, and I suspect lots of others too,  information is the lifeblood of my progress through life. Quick and easy access to the things I need is a vital part that enables me to move on and keep up  – the old methods of libraries and encyclopedias are old hat. They are too slow and in some cases  often out of date the moment their shelves are stacked.

>>Search engines and Business use

I’ve used them to gauge the performance of my business activities.  I’ve  used them to research other companies that I compete with. I’ve used them for competitive research purposes on behalf of clients. I’ve used them to find new opportunities, for myself and for the companies that employ me to do their bidding. I’ve used their products to promote both what I do and what the people I’m paid to help do too.

The benefits to me have been huge and have helped me establish the type of working life I can enjoy and benefit from. I couldn’t have learnt a fraction of what I know without their existence. I’d have traversed my curve a whole lot slower than what I have

>>Search engine and Personal use

Like many others I’ve also used them to research things I might write about on my blog. I’ve used them to find other ways of connecting to other people. I’ve used them to research personal issues. I’ve used them to research illnesses of loved ones, I’ve used them to research legal stuff around my rights and duties,  I’ve used them to win bets with friends or to just prove a smugarse point or two. I’ve used them to learn all manner of things. I’ve used them to find educational resources, interactive forums, answers to questions and problems.

Without labouring the point too much its clear to say that as in the example of  the business sphere above, I’ve benefited enormously from the advent of search engines. I’m also fortunate to be the type of person who can grab hold of these things and use them to maximum effect.

 It’s not one way traffic

Of course, it isn’t all about me me me and win win win. As self enhancing and marvelously beneficial it all looks at a glance, the search engines do benefit too.

The meteoric rise and influence of some today are indicative of their mass public appeal and use. Companies like Google being worth billions of dollars practically overnight has been no accident. Users like me, have helped build these  empires. Ordinary citizens and companies have written the documents that have formed their vast databases. Documents  continually fetched and reappraised by their search engine bots and spiders, bots that continually trawl cyberspace in their everlasting quest for information, feeding on the knowledge of the world, sucking everything in  like some huge information vacuum cleaner.

I love this quote from Robert Morgan

Knowledge is power. Information is power. The secreting or hoarding of knowledge or information may be an act of tyranny camouflaged as humility.

But hey, search engines share the information they receive right? Absolutely they do. Why wouldn’t they even. It isn’t theirs to keep after all, they are simply enabling users to search and find key information within the array of servers used to store the data.

That’s cool though isn’t it? Nothing wrong with that, they get to slap a few related ads from people looking to sit alongside the queries and they benefit from the revenue accrued from their user clicks. A marteting mans wet dream almost – users in buy mode, get the opprtunity to click on ads from companies looking to sell the very thing they are after.

So what does this have to do with that Robert Morgan quote – why am I even blathering on about it, what does it have to do with anything I hear you ask.

>>Search engines are data miners

If you take off the fluffy rose tinted specs and put down the kool aid for 20 seconds or so, you might be pleased or concerned to hear that search engines also store data related to how you search and can and do attribute it to personal users. They track your queries and track your behaviours, they talk about that they do in the broadest of terms but give very little away on the specifics. A recent document criticised one particular search engine and assigned them in the lowest grade. A news article reported it thus

In a report released Saturday, London-based Privacy International assigned Google its lowest possible grade. The category is reserved for companies with “comprehensive consumer surveillance and entrenched hostility to privacy.”

See, over here in the UK we have this thing called the data protection act. It enables people like me, should the mood so take me to request of a company or organisation that is storing data on me, specific access to those files and information. It enables me to keep a track on those watching me and possibly using stuff they have on me against me or in ways I might not agree with. Its fee based, but its there to see should I so want to see it.

It might be boring to repeat the list of findings the report highlights, as I’m sure you can draw your own conclusions and theorise as to the where’s and who’s of where some of that stuff could go.It’s certainly annoyed  one  shareholder  and I don’t doubt one or two more even, and one can kinda see why too.

When things like this grow legs and begin to walk then things can begin to freefall pretty quick. Questions begin to get asked from all manner of angles and places, forcing carefully considered responses. The  data protection working party represents the interests of some 650 million people . It seems very reasonable of them to ask such questions, hell why wouldn’t you even.

>>>>Privacy Defeciencies

Its not too far a leap to ask why it is that a privately owned company with an almost monopolistic grip on something so fundamental to the lives of so many people should  be allowed unrestricted insights and access into the lives of its users.

Why shouldn’t I or any other person on the planet be allowed to search in private? Why should my actions be open to scrutiny from faceless people that I have no knowledge of. Why should I have delve deeply into the annuls of some corporate privacy document to find out how they are tracking what I do.

Hell why is there not even one mention of the word ‘query’ or ‘queries’ in that document itself, is it any surprise that when Privacy International  (PI)   should identify things like…

Google logs search queries in a manner that makes them personally identifiable but fails to provide users with the ability to edit or otherwise expunge records of their previous searches.

…that people like me and millions of others too for that matter should sit up and ask, hang on a minute, what is this all about then?

Matt cutts complains

Google didn’t leak user queries

In this past year, AOL released millions of raw queries from hundreds of thousands of users. Within days, a journalist had determined the identity of an AOL userfrom the queries that AOL released. But AOL got a better grade than Google.

So because Google didn’t leak those queries or mess up with the data storage (yet) that makes it ok then? If anything those links referenced show how off this whole thing is.

It really doesn’t wash for a company to be able to argue that ‘Oh its ok, we aren’t gonna do anything nasty with it all, we promise, trust us..’ um no sorry buddies, why should we? You didn’t think it cool to tell us in your privacy document, what else aren’t you telling us? How else are you making capital on the trust I invested in you as a user? Seriously, what else aren’t you telling me? It’s a reasonable question.

Diminshing trust

I can’t deny it, my mindset has shifted. For sometime now I’ve seen Google in a different light. Yahoo, MSN for me they always we’re nothing but what they are – a face of global capitalism. Companies set up designed to extract maximum value for their shareholders and investors.

See, Google were different. They once were very very cool.  I liked this company a whole lot.They took the webmaster community with them and people bought into that whole do no evil mantra. People like Matt we’re a human interactive face to what seemed to be a hip funky happening company.

With its glow lava lamps funky little logos and goofy colours, its simple fast efficient search engine. I enjoyed following its little data refreshes and its Google dances and all the other paraphernalia that came with it. I wanted them to succeed, crazy huh? I, and apparently lots of other geekazoids really did want this  group of geeks doing geeky things with tech stuff to succeed. A breath of fresh air on what was for me at least a stale and money grabbing profit at all costs altavistic landcape

Yet today, not just over this PI report, or that EU enquiry mind; today – I’m like, all that ‘do no evil stuff’ is just meaningless tosh now. I don’t buy their ubergeek we are all nice and cool people image anymore,I haven’t for sometime. Reports like the one mentioned add credence to a view that it really is about time we had some legislation that forced certain standards upon private companies.

Sorry google but doing things like tracking me and not giving me opt out options, just because its a way of improving the datasets and knowledge and value you can give to other interested marketers and affiliates and shareholder value  is just plain wrong. To add to the mix the fact that its not even private, that my very queries alone can be looked at and read by some one who I don’t even know is very disturbing too. I really don’t like it. You’ve gone too far.

Two wrongs don’t make a right

Ok so sure, theoretically my ISP could well be a whole lot worse. After all they filter all the data that I send out there. It all comes through their pipe. Every piece of unencrypted plain text data I push through their servers could theoretically be grabbed analysed and crunched. Thats MSN chats, emails, websites visited, everything.

There are quite clearly already recognised serious privacy issues there too, addressed at various levels but thats a topic for another discussion perhaps – the reality is that most people are just blissfully unaware.

Search engines might argue that comparatively they are not as ‘bad’ as Internet Service Providers (ISP’s). That ISP’s are the potential bad boy exploiters in all of this and to some extent I have a little sympathy with that view, but at the same time, it really isn’t about some “they are worse than me, so leave me alone and pick on them instead” kind of world view. Its about ensuring that  providers of services like Google who ( agree or disagree) have a monopolistic near 80 % stranglehold on something as fundamental and utilitarian as search; behave in ways that ensure my personal rights and privacy are at worst maintained and at best enhanced.

You don’t have to use them Rob

It isn’t really an argument to say that if I don’t like it then I should use something else, because the others out there could well be doing the same things or worse.

Search is fundamental to all of our lives. We need some strong public accountability in our search engines enforced by strong democratic controls.

Rob Watts
Kickstart your business today - Get an SEO Consultation or just talk to Rob about your online aspirations. With over 20 years experience in building traffic he's pretty much encountered most markets and scenarios

6 thoughts on “Search engines – Public or Private accountability?

  1. Shane

    Every company gets to a certain size and gains a certain amount of “evilability”. Google’s no different.

    I don’t know what the future of search is, or privacy, but honestly, I think it’s in the splintered form of social networking. Over time we all build up a network of people and sites that we trust. None of them are big enough to control as much as the search engines do …

    I don’t know! Just some thoughts.

  2. Steven

    Interesting thoughts. It’s kind of scary how much information Google has and they’re only getting more with each purchase they make (FeedBurner, etc.).

  3. robwatts Post author

    Thanks for the comments guys. I don’t mean to sound like I’m anti google, I’m not. I just think aspects of how they behave are a little unnecessary and a step too far.

    I get the myriad of internal competing pressures from sales and marketing people yelling, “more info more info more info” I gethow useful and juicy and powerful such data is. But jesus one has to draw the line somewhere, and if that means legislative action then so be it. Its up to them to avoid it. If they end up being strictly legislated then they’ll only have themselves to blame.

    Maybe their current levels of profitability just aren’t enough…sigh

  4. Matt Keegan

    Search is fundamental to how we find things online. There is simply no way around it, other than via StumbleUpon which we all know has recently been acquired by eBay.

    I am not one for all out government regulation of the internet (heck, this isn’t communist China) but the search engines have a responsibility to police themselves or otherwise risk falling under government scrutiny.

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