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Google did it
Google has done the right thing to resist the federal government's demand for Internet records. Somebody had to challenge this latest demand for private information. Microsoft could have done it; Google did it.
In complying, Microsoft said the information had no personal identifiers and was therefore harmless. If you had typed "child porn" in the search engine, the government would see "child porn" but not you. But it does raise a problem. If the government found that a certain number of people had typed that in, it might want to know who they are.
Fine, some will say. Child porn is evidence of a crime; let the government know who's looking for it. But we open a box with this. Presented with no specific crime but merely the idea of it, our government undertakes to search everybody. Screen all Americans in order to find a few.
We have long tolerated random searches at the border and now accept them at airports. Recently, we learned that our international phone calls are monitored. Under the Patriot Act, our library records may be examined. Now, the search-everybody principle comes to the Net — halfway. Today, subjects; tomorrow, names.
We are not used to this level of intrusion, and we don't want it.
It reminds us of China. The government there is trying to police the Internet — and the information it demands is more than mere aggregates. Last fall, when a reporter in China received a memo listing what he could and could not say in print, he e-mailed it to foreigners.
China asked Yahoo for information that would identify him. Yahoo complied, and he got 10 years in prison. Last month, Microsoft shut down the U.S.-based Weblog of a journalist in China at the request of China's government.
Yahoo and Microsoft do not set the rules in China any more than a Chinese company would set them here. The goals of those two companies are commercial, not political. Further, the bigger a company is, the more difficult it is to take a political stand against the authorities, because more jobs and assets are on the line.
And yet, there has to be some point at which commercial interests defer to ethical leadership.
We have no easy definition of what that point is, only the faith that it is there. At some point, the American business person must adopt an inscrutable face and say, "I'm sorry, our software doesn't permit us to do that," even when both sides know that it does.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company