Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

De-Democratization in Innovation's Clothing


The Internet is eliminating our ability to live anonymously. Google is attempting to perfect its ability to know exactly what we have done, are doing, and will do, with the stated goal of making our experiences on the Internet better in some way.

In fact, Google is perfecting its ability to know what advertisements would be relevant to a search you are performing. Everything else, for the reasons you give below, is an industrial byproduct. You should be more careful to follow the implications of this fact in your analysis, which is too loose by far when it comes to the particular situation you are writing about.

Having amassed a mind-boggling amount of data about us as individuals, Google is increasingly tailoring what we are presented with as we browse the Internet to what they think we will “like.”

Instead of letting your mind boggle, you should do the more careful work of thinking about it. In the first place, they have primarily the data you give them. If you don't maintain a login for other Google services (if you don't ask them for free email, chat, calendar or social networking services, etc.) they have what you type into the search box, which you can limit further by crunching the cookies they hand you, and always appearing to them as someone they've not seen before. If you do this through a proxy that mixes your requests with other peoples', and/or if you use the TrackMeNot Firefox plugin to conceal your requests inside a cloud of fake requests that copy a statistical average of the most popular Google requests right now (provided by Google), you can do your searching without ever telling Google anything about you. They will continue to try to guess what ads to show you, and you can continue to throw those ads away if you want to.

So really, why is this such a big deal? Because we believe that people are never going to want to have privacy from Google, or if they do, they're not going to all the trouble of setting themselves up to have privacy from Google. That would be the point of FreedomBox.

This applies to everything from the ads we look at, to the search results we are presented with, to what stories are positioned at the top of our news feeds. Having tailored the Internet experience to the individual user, Google ostensibly improves the experience because the user is more likely to appreciate the advertisements, click on the top link presented in a search, and read the news stories generated. But the story isn’t all that rosy. Steps backwards in democracy have been cloaked in steps “forward” in technology.

But you can easily show people how to get their news feed aggregation for themselves, not having Google News do it for them, in addition to showing them how to leave fewer or no search tracks. Has the step backwards in democracy been reversed?


Google remembers everything we search for. It does this in order to “improve” our search results, over time. It also do this in order to improve its sales pitch to advertisers choosing where to spend their marketing dollars. Though the company’s motto is “do no evil,” it has some trouble controlling some of the evil activities of its employees. By tying our entire search history to our IP addresses, Google destroys any anonymity we once hoped for in our use of the Internet.

This is not a correct statement. Google uses the IP address as one among many elements in its log of our relationship, but if we are not logged in to a Google service and not presenting any search cookies to save state for our searches, Google can only assume that we are one among many possible users behind a firewall at our address. Perhaps Google will attempt to distinguish streams of search requests that identify one among multiple users. If we are using a browser plug-in like TrackMeNot to emit clouds of random searches that are like the searches of other people, in which our own are the needle in the haystack, Google will not be threatening, let alone destroying, our anonymity.

Now, on the other hand, if you're going to let them read all your email.....

Google is becoming more open and transparent about these issues. The multi-million dollar “Good to Know” ad campaign the company launched in February shows us that the company has recognized (and validated) the public’s fear about what Google knows. Chief amongst those fears is that the company will release information about us to the government when subpoenaed (or asked politely). Google finds itself between a rock and a hard place, though. Giving users piece of mind would be nice, but not at the expense of losing its ability to generate advertising revenues, which amounted to $9.3 billion last year and accounted for 96% of Google’s total revenues. Given Google’s financial data, it is hard to believe the company wants us to be able to easily search anonymously. If it did, it could make its most private settings options active by default and put the link to its privacy center prominently on its homepage.

Effects on Participation in Democracy

The Internet is the most powerful tool mankind has ever created to connect people with information. Ideally, American citizens use the Internet at least in part to become more informed about the issues of our day and to make their participation in our democracy more informed. But the lack of anonymity associated with out Internet use seriously hinders that goal.

Seriously? Seriously seriously? Don't you have to say something about why?

The Filter Bubble

Coined by Eli Pariser, the "filter bubble" is the concept that individuals are decreasingly exposed to conflicting viewpoints as Google and other websites become better at tailoring search results to users. This creates an intellectual bubble that grows harder to escape as one continues to use the Internet. This is troubling because Internet users genuinely attempting to become more informed but unaware of how Google works are lulled into a sense of enlightenment when, in reality, they are only presented with an increasingly small fraction of relevant information and viewpoints. We can agree that nothing is worse than uninformed political zealots preaching biased nonsense.

But this requires more than claiming. You have any actual evidence that Google significantly reduces the diversity of information people receive over time? This would present a serious reason for people to use competing services, because advertising that matches your life better is potentially valuable, but searches that leave out relevant things that a computer thinks you don't want to see are obviously a bad idea. I think you can pretty much guarantee yourself that this is not a smart move for Google, which is not stupid about things like this.

Recently, Adam Kovacevich, a Senior Manager of Public Policy Communications at Google, came and spoke to my media industries class about privacy concerns at Google and about the company’s goals. One of the more terrifying things he said was that Google’s aim is to narrow down search results to one link per search. The company is aggressively moving away from the old “ten blue links” approach. Failing to recognize the value in a range of results for any given topic, Google’s stated goal is to now shrink the size of the filter bubbles we all find ourselves in. It’s a shame that the most important shapers of the most powerful information tool in human history is actively trying to hide more and more of the Internet from us.

That's an unfair interpretation of Googlespeak. "I'm Feeling Lucky" has been there since the beginning, and there's a good reason. When you're confident that you have been specific enough that Google would have to be really messed up for anything other than what you're looking for to be the first link returned, one link is what you want. In many existing cases, that's true.

<technote>I use the command line to do things. Everywhere, I have commands with one key difference for doing a Google search, and doing a Google search I think trivial, where I always want to follow the first link. Both forms of the search are primary for me, and I always know which one I want. One keystroke tells the difference. That's no friction at all.</technote>

Google knows that's often the best answer for everybody, hence the beautifully-misnamed "Lucky" button; in mobile environments, it's often going to be the user's chosen default.

You should consider that when you give the user only one link, you can give her also at maximum one ad. That means such ad placements will be auctioned at very high prices.

But there's no reason for Google to deprive the service user of the full range of search hits, and as time goes by Google will become better at making those efforts. Closed mobile devices may not be running user-controlled browsers like Firefox, or may require use of a Google ID or other service-provider login to get basic services. Google never benefits from failing to afford users the most effective search, including providing all the results their curiosity can require.

Duck Duck Go

Duck Duck Go is an alternative search engine that has gained popularity of late. Recognizing the market’s desire for privacy in search, this company has made an effort to make search more anonymous. Though imperfect, the website does take some useful steps towards making our searches safer. In doing so, Duck Duck Go frees itself from any and all ethical dilemmas that may arise as a result of government subpoenas, creepy employee tendencies, or security breaches. The following are some of the important things the search engine does to keep search more private:

  • No collection or storage of User Agent or IP address
  • No collection of browser cookies
  • Links to encrypted versions of major websites by default

Note that the latter two are steps you can take by yourself. If you're using either Firefox or Google's own browser, Chrome, you can get EFF's very effective HTTPS Everywhere plug-in for your browser. And you can always turn on "private browsing" mode in Firefox and stop collecting or giving out cookies to anyone, along with that User Agent data and other browser-fingerprint data.

So it comes down to someone's offering alternative search services on the basis of a promise to fight not to reveal information you could conceal more easily than they can promise to win all legal wars. We're the least cost avoiders, and you haven't explained that to the readers, who should know that a really important fraction of this stuff could be dealt with reasonably simply on their end:

  1. Get Firefox. If your device won't let you run Firefox, get another device;
  2. Install some or all of the privacy plug-ins I've listed above, beginning with AdBlockPlus, TrackMeNot, and HTTPS Everywhere;
  3. Learn about Firefox's Private Browsing Mode; hit Shift-Control-P and try it out;
  4. Install GNU Privacy Guard; then use it to generate a key for yourself, and upload it to the keyservers. Now you can have serious email and file encryption. (When you get a FreedomBox, your GPG key will give you secure communication with the world.)
  5. If you want serious hard-core privacy on the network, get Tor.

If you take these steps on your own computer, you will be ready to do as much as can easily be done. After this, you would like to have some "virtual private network" (VPN) at your disposal. This is something that can most easily be done using a small privacy-intensive network router like the FreedomBox, but it can also be done using your laptop alone.

These steps combine to prevent the search engine from knowing anything about its user as an individual, with a few important effects. Most obviously, the search is anonymous and the potential for abuse of a user's search data is alleviated. Secondly, the user's experience is much more reminiscent of the "ten blue links" that Google used to employ. This means that though the top results are not as likely to be clicked on by the user, the user is presented with a wider array of perspectives on a given search because it has not been tailored to fit the perceived perspective of the user.

Duck Duck Go’s efforts are important, but incomplete. The websites the search engine directs the user to still know who users are, even if they don’t know the search terms used to find them. More than anything, though, the increasing popularity of this alternative search engine is an important signal that Internet users are, in fact, concerned about their privacy, even if its implications on this country’s democracy are lost on them.

If Internet users are, in fact, concerned about their privacy, you should teach them how to have more of it, and how to understand the remaining weaknesses and what hey can do about those. More information of that kind would make this essay useful to a much broader readership. I've added some and you should add more and rewrite the text.

-- RoyMoran - 26 Mar 2012



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r3 - 11 Jan 2013 - 21:48:54 - IanSullivan
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