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

Cite this Article
Geoffrey A. Manne, If government is the problem, when is Google the solution?, Truth on the Market (January 20, 2006), https://truthonthemarket.com/2006/01/20/if-government-is-the-problem-when-is-google-the-solution/

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).


_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?