Politics & Policy

“Oogling My Googling”

Whose side is technology on, anyway?

A wave of pious indignation and table-thumping has spread across the nation’s editorial pages over the freedom to search for Internet porn. Don’t get me wrong: I think you do have the right to search for porn. But it is interesting to see what gets people’s First Amendment gag reflex going. The Baltimore Sun, for example, warns that a “witch-hunt” for search-engine abusers might be around the corner if Google cooperates with the government.

Maureen Dowd, the reigning scribe of unthinking liberalism, recently wrote in the New York Times that Dick Cheney–whom she calls “The Grim Peeper”–is trying to turn America into a “police state.” “I don’t like the thought of Dick Cheney ogling my Googling,” Dowd writes without rhyme or reason.

It was a silly column, even for Dowd, but it does capture a certain level of both the legitimate fear and the outright paranoia out there.

Partisanship is obviously part of the equation. For instance, the heretofore-unknown disease of Cheneyphobia seems to be reaching epidemic proportions. It seems to cause some people to believe that the vice president of the United States has superhuman powers and that he is capable of personally reading hundreds of millions of e-mails while listening to thousands of hours of phone conversations and–simultaneously–scanning trillions of web searches.

Robert Kuttner, writing about a different controversy in the Boston Globe, shows serious symptoms of the affliction when he writes, “Google plus Dick Cheney is a recipe for undoing the liberties for which the original patriots of the American Revolution bled and died.”

On the narrow point about Dick Cheney, this is all a bunch of nonsense. The Department of Justice is in a lawsuit with the ACLU over the Child Online Protection Act, which is designed to help prevent kids from being exposed to online porn. The law ran afoul of the First Amendment, according to a lower court, and the Supreme Court asked for additional information pending its final decision on the matter. The Department of Justice asked Google, as well as MSN, Yahoo!, and Time Warner (AOL’s parent), to provide data on their search engines from a one-week period. (The Associated Press scarily refers to the request as a “White House subpoena,” as if the White House could actually issue subpoenas.) No personal information was asked for and none has been given. Everyone but Google complied, because there’s really no reason not to. Google, however, sees itself in a very idealistic light and has decided to stand on principle against the government, prompting huzzahs from all the predictable sources.

But the same crowd celebrating Google’s decision has generally been quiet about, for example, public health surveys that ask doctors to report all sorts of really private information (anonymous, of course) for epidemiological purposes. If you’re going to consider it a grotesque infringement on personal liberty for the government to find out that some anonymous person Google-searched “lesbian love goats,” you’d think you’d also be upset by the National Institutes of Health cataloging how many people fitting your description have had prostate exams in the last year. The intrusion is at least as serious, but because no one imagines that Dick Cheney cares about your prostate–yet!–the First Amendment thumpers don’t offer a peep.

But there is a larger issue here worth considering. It has become something of an article of faith that technology is always on the side of liberty. In the old Soviet Union, the Xerox machines were chained up at night in order to prevent unauthorized photocopying. (Of course, they weren’t called “Xerox machines” but “Glorious People’s Photostatic Replicator” or “Trabant Machine” or some such.) The Soviet authorities recognized that information technology was the enemy of totalitarianism. Freedom of the photocopier was not only freedom of the press, but freedom to communicate, which lies at the core of all liberty.

The Internet age has seemingly confirmed this. In China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other oppressive regimes, Internet usage is severely policed because the free-flow of information is seen as a threat to the regime.

But even if the liberating power of technology is an iron law of history in the long run, that doesn’t mean that in the short run technology can’t be on the side of oppression–and the short run can last a lifetime. After all, the Soviets used technology to oppress their people for 70 years.

Technology brings change and requires adaptation–by the state and the individual alike. It’s not obvious how we should view Google searches, for example. Are they like letters or diary entries or something else entirely? It’s revealing that no sane person would condone local libraries giving stacks of hardcore porn to little kids. But some Internet voluptuaries see nothing wrong with pretty much the exact same thing over the web.

This is a subject worth arguing about. But it’s difficult to take people seriously when their core argument is, “If Dick Cheney’s for it, I’m against it.”

(c) 2006 Tribune Media Services

AUTHOR’S NOTE: The news that Google will cooperate with China’s censors broke after this column went to bed. But it does seem to underscore my point that its ideological posture here in the states is a marketing strategy more than anything else. So much for their motto “Don’t be evil.”

Most Popular

Politics & Policy

Biden’s Unhelpful Mask Stance

On the menu today: Joe Biden brings his own problems to the national stage, declaring that he wants Americans to wear masks until the end of his first 100 days in office -- well after the 100 million most vulnerable Americans will be vaccinated! -- and warns that the nation’s death toll from the pandemic will ... Read More
Politics & Policy

Biden’s Unhelpful Mask Stance

On the menu today: Joe Biden brings his own problems to the national stage, declaring that he wants Americans to wear masks until the end of his first 100 days in office -- well after the 100 million most vulnerable Americans will be vaccinated! -- and warns that the nation’s death toll from the pandemic will ... Read More
Media

‘The Children of Pornhub’

In a lengthy reported piece for the New York Times out today, columnist Nicholas Kristof tells the stories of children who were raped or sexually abused and who had videos of their mistreatment uploaded to the Internet pornography site Pornhub. From Kristof’s reporting: Its site is infested with rape videos. ... Read More
Media

‘The Children of Pornhub’

In a lengthy reported piece for the New York Times out today, columnist Nicholas Kristof tells the stories of children who were raped or sexually abused and who had videos of their mistreatment uploaded to the Internet pornography site Pornhub. From Kristof’s reporting: Its site is infested with rape videos. ... Read More
Elections

The Post-Election Madness Gets Worse

On the menu today: Two lawyers who aren’t formally on the president’s legal team but who keep filing lawsuits on his behalf tell Georgia Republicans to not vote in the Senate runoffs; Michael Flynn endorses a call for “limited martial law” and a “re-vote” of the presidential election; and the ... Read More
Elections

The Post-Election Madness Gets Worse

On the menu today: Two lawyers who aren’t formally on the president’s legal team but who keep filing lawsuits on his behalf tell Georgia Republicans to not vote in the Senate runoffs; Michael Flynn endorses a call for “limited martial law” and a “re-vote” of the presidential election; and the ... Read More
Elections

About the ‘Suitcase’ Video

The video is more powerful than anything the Trump team has come up with to this point because (1) it’s video, which is always more powerful; (2) the story seemingly told by the snippet so intuitively lines up with the fraud narrative — Republican observers are asked to leave late at night and then, boom, new ... Read More
Elections

About the ‘Suitcase’ Video

The video is more powerful than anything the Trump team has come up with to this point because (1) it’s video, which is always more powerful; (2) the story seemingly told by the snippet so intuitively lines up with the fraud narrative — Republican observers are asked to leave late at night and then, boom, new ... Read More
World

Trump Pulls American Troops Out of Somalia

President Trump on Friday ordered almost all American troops to be withdrawn from Somalia, following similar reductions in U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Pentagon announced that the majority of the approximately 700 troops in Somalia will leave the area by January 15. Many are expected to ... Read More
World

Trump Pulls American Troops Out of Somalia

President Trump on Friday ordered almost all American troops to be withdrawn from Somalia, following similar reductions in U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Pentagon announced that the majority of the approximately 700 troops in Somalia will leave the area by January 15. Many are expected to ... Read More
White House

Trump’s Disgraceful Endgame

President Trump said the other day that he’d leave office if he loses the vote of the Electoral College on December 14. This is not the kind of assurance presidents of the United States typically need to make, but it was noteworthy given Trump’s disgraceful conduct since losing his bid for reelection to ... Read More
White House

Trump’s Disgraceful Endgame

President Trump said the other day that he’d leave office if he loses the vote of the Electoral College on December 14. This is not the kind of assurance presidents of the United States typically need to make, but it was noteworthy given Trump’s disgraceful conduct since losing his bid for reelection to ... Read More