If government is the problem, when is Google the solution?

Geoffrey Manne —  20 January 2006

Via the WSJblog, I see that Google and the government are tangling again over the government’s effort to obtain search records (this time relating to porn-viewing-by-children enforcement efforts) (I guess that should read anti-porn-viewing-by-children enforcement efforts). It reminds me of a post of Dan’s on Concurring Opinions from a while back that I wanted to comment on, but, well, I didn’t have a blog then. I do now.

In that post, commenting on a NYT article suggesting that Google curtail certain information retention practices, Dan contends that

No matter what Google’s privacy policy says, the fact that it maintains information about people’s search activity enables the government to gather that data, often with a mere subpoena, which provides virtually no protection to privacy — and sometimes without even a subpoena. (emphasis added)

I find it interesting that the “blame” for privacy incursions by the government is being laid at Google’s feet. Google isn’tprivacy.jpg doing the . . . incursioning, and we wouldn’t have to saddle Google with any costs of protection (perhaps even lessening functionality) if we just nipped the problem in the bud. Importantly, the implication here is that government should not have access to the information in question–a decision that sounds inherently political to me. I’m just a little surprised to hear anyone (other than me) saying that corporations should take it upon themselves to “fix” government policy by, in effect, destroying records.

But at the same time, it makes some sense to look to Google to ameliorate these costs. Google is, after all, responsive to market forces, and (once in a while) I’m sure markets respond to consumer preferences more quickly and effectively than politicians do. And if Google perceives that offering more protection for its customers can be more cheaply done by restraining the government than by curtailing its own practices, then Dan’s suggestion that Google take the lead in lobbying for greater legislative protections of personal information may come to pass. Of course we’re still left with the problem of Google and not the politicians bearing the cost of their folly (if it is folly).

UPDATE:

_38300429_censor-google150.jpgSo it turns out that although it may be a moral victory (for what precise vision of morality I don’t know), it surely isn’t looking like a financial one: Google’s stock plummets following news that it intends to fight the government’s subpoenas of its records. Now, does the drop in value reflect a recognition by shareholders that the “problem” is not, in fact, worth what Google will be paying to fix it (because perhaps it isn’t perceived as much of a problem outside the blawgosphere)? Or is it a reflection that the entire business model is imperiled, whether Google fights or not?

Geoffrey Manne

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3 responses to If government is the problem, when is Google the solution?

  1. 

    Exactly right, and I thought I noted that your conclusion was a plausible one (if for a different reason).

    But the language I quoted from your post above does seem to me to allocate a sort of moral responsibility to Google — and I think it’s rather a question of comparative institutions: Is it the market (here with Google’s facilitation) or the political process that better (more cheaply, more accurately, etc.) serves the social welfare? One way to start to think about that (not the end of the analysis, but the beginning) is to deny equivalence: Google’s “enabling” government to access information as an incidence of its valuable conduct is not (morally/ethically/politically) the same as government’s actually accessing the information. It may be, in the end, that it is more economical for Google to deal with the problem (if it is one) given the political reality. But for the New York Times (and you, as I understood your post) whose language is morality and politics, not economics, to suggest that Google bears responsibility is not, I think, helpful.

  2. 

    Geoff,

    I don’t recall arguing in the post that Google should destroy data, and my argument wasn’t primarily to cast blame on Google. I was arguing that when businesses gather information, the government may gather it notwithstanding their privacy policies. This thwarts the interests of companies that want to entice people to reveal information by promising strong limitations in its use. It also adds an often unstated risk to a consumer’s revealing information to a company. My primary message was that Google should be pushing for legislation to better regulate government information gathering from businesses. In other words, I was saying that it is here where business interests and individual consumer interests are aligned with regard to privacy. As I wrote at the conclusion of the post:

    I also think that businesses should use their power to push for greater legislative protections of personal information from government access. It is here were Google’s interests and the privacy interests of its users coincide. Right now, the government is inadequately regulated when it comes to accessing personal data maintained by third parties. If the businesses maintaining the data lobbied Congress for greater protections, this would help to address one of the major privacy threats that their maintaining the information poses. It wouldn’t solve all of the problems, but it would address a big one.

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  1. TRUTH ON THE MARKET » Is Google or the government the problem? - December 3, 2009

    […] this should be Google’s problem, I have no idea.  I discussed this issue before: I find it interesting that the “blame” for privacy incursions by the government is being laid […]