Category: Google & Search Engines

Three Cheers for Categorizers!


Dan mentioned an indefatigable blogger who’s now taxonomizing over 600 law-related blawgs. I’ve heard a lot of critics of bloggers complain about “navel-gazing” in this field. But this type of work is exceedingly valuable, as I try to demonstrate in a recent piece on “information overload externalities.”

In my view, categorizers are a uniquely beneficial “genus” in the information ecosystem, and they deserve special solicitude from copyright law. Categorizers should be able to provide small samples or clips from whatever works they organize or index, without begging for licenses from the copyrightholders who own the sampled work.

Unfortunately, categorizers have been getting some rough treatment by courts lately. For example, Google recently lost a battle against “erotic image purveyor” Perfect 10 because the low resolution images on its “image search” might reduce Perfect 10’s sales to the “cell phone viewing” market. The Author’s Guild (which appears neither to represent all authors nor to be a guild) is suing to stop Google’s digital book indexing project—even though Google permits any aggrieved copyright owner to opt out! They believe Google should have to work out, individually, permissions for each of the millions of books they want to index.

Imagine if uber-taxonomizer 3L Epiphany had to ask permission to quote or cite to any of the blawgs he compiled. Are we really going to let a few cantankerous holdouts veto an effort to archive and index the world’s expression? I hope not, for a couple reasons…

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Epstein on Google

Richard Epstein criticizes Google’s book library feature, at Financial Times:

If Google can unilaterally put this burden on copyright owners, then so can all of its rivals, forcing both publishers and authors to expend valuable resources just to preserve the status quo ante. This “negative option” approach has been roundly rejected in traditional contexts, as with audacious publishers who send notices telling hapless addressees that they’re now subscribers for a year unless they return some opt out notice.

I’ll leave it to the IP experts around here to say whether he’s right or wrong on the details. If he’s right, it doesn’t bode too well for Google books.


Google’s PageRank and Google’s Justice System

google.jpgGoogle doesn’t look kindly upon attempts to game its PageRank system. Google PageRank is the way Google determines what order to display search results. The higher a page’s rank is, the higher up the page appears in a search results list.


According to Google:

PageRank performs an objective measurement of the importance of web pages by solving an equation of more than 500 million variables and 2 billion terms. Instead of counting direct links, PageRank interprets a link from Page A to Page B as a vote for Page B by Page A. PageRank then assesses a page’s importance by the number of votes it receives.

PageRank also considers the importance of each page that casts a vote, as votes from some pages are considered to have greater value, thus giving the linked page greater value. Important pages receive a higher PageRank and appear at the top of the search results. Google’s technology uses the collective intelligence of the web to determine a page’s importance. There is no human involvement or manipulation of results, which is why users have come to trust Google as a source of objective information untainted by paid placement.

What happens when a website tries to game Google’s PageRank system? Philipp Lenssen has an interesting post about one such case over at Google Blogoscoped:

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Do No Evil and Perhaps Do Some Good: Google, Privacy, and Business Records

google5.jpgI just blogged about the case where the goverment is seeking search query records from Google. I am very pleased that Google is opposing the goverment’s suboena. According to the AP artice:

Google — whose motto when it went public in 2004 was “do no evil” — contends that submitting to the subpoena would represent a betrayal to its users, even if all personal information is stripped from the search terms sought by the government.

“Google’s acceding to the request would suggest that it is willing to reveal information about those who use its services. This is not a perception that Google can accept,” company attorney Ashok Ramani wrote in a letter included in the government’s filing.

In contrast to Google, other search engine companies such as Yahoo complied with the subpoenas without putting up a fight. Google is to be applauded for taking the effort to rebuff the government’s request.

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Government vs. Google

google.jpgAccording to the AP:

Google Inc. is rebuffing the Bush administration’s demand for a peek at what millions of people have been looking up on the Internet’s leading search engine — a request that underscores the potential for online databases to become tools for government surveillance.

Mountain View-based Google has refused to comply with a White House subpoena first issued last summer, prompting U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales this week to ask a federal judge in San Jose for an order to hand over the requested records.

The government wants a list all requests entered into Google’s search engine during an unspecified single week — a breakdown that could conceivably span tens of millions of queries. In addition, it seeks 1 million randomly selected Web addresses from various Google databases.

The government is seeking in its motion to have the court direct Google to comply with a subpoena for “the text of each search string entered onto Google’s search engine over a one-week period (absent any information identifying the person who entered such query).” Originally, the government had asked for “[a]ll queries that have been entered on your company’s serch engine between June 1, 2005, and July 31, 2005, inclusive.” According to the government’s motion, the government narrowed its request to the text of search strings after extensive negotiations with Google.

The government’s request strikes me as tremendously inappropriate and proof that we need more protections against government access to personal data. I have written extensively on this issue and will address it in other posts.

I was struck by the resemblance of this case to another case back in 2004 where the Bush Administration attempted to subpoena records in its attempt to defend the constitutionality of a law. That case is Northwestern Memorial Hospital v. Ashcroft, 362 F.3d 963 (7th Cir. 2004). In Northwestern Memorial Hospital, the government subpoenead 45 records on partial birth abortions in order to gather information to defend the constitutionality of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003.

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Building the Google Brand, Courtesy of DOJ

According to today’s New York Times, Google is resisting a Department of Justice subpoena seeking records on Google users’ search queries. Yahoo, AOL, and MSN previously complied with the government’s request for this data. I will leave the legal issues to Dan and other privacy experts, but my first response to this story was that Google’s legal posture is an awesome marketing move. Google’s aggressive efforts to protect search information convey a message to consumers that they are the “privacy protective” websearch brand. Even if Google is ultimately forced to produce this information, its decision to resist the subpoena signals that the company will be privacy protective in the future.

This may have a very positive marketing effect. Since all search engines are free, and since Google is at least as good a product as its competitors, I imagine many surfers will take the path of greatest privacy protection. Really, how many web users – no matter how benign their searches – would prefer to be monitored by the government? Of course, when it comes to the porn consumer – and by all accounts there are millions of them – it’s going to be Google or bust!


Welcome to the Google-Borg is running a banner headline today for an article: “Google becoming an auxiliary brain.” Here’s the article, and here’s the thesis of the reporter, Elizabeth Weise:

If we are the sum total of our knowledge and experiences, then the Internet is a collection of other people’s knowledge and experiences. And Google — so ubiquitous that it has become its own verb — allows us to tap into that collection.

I generally enjoyed reading this, and it’s way too easy to nitpick USA Today, but here are a few reactions:

1) It’s a pretty clear example of the cyborg trope isn’t it? Google isn’t billed as just a novel information source, like a television, it’s billed as a “brain” — a technological extension of human biology. And like the brain of the Star Trek Borg, it is a collective mind we now share. This collective brain-sharing is billed not as scary, but nifty.

2) Despite the excerpt above, if you read this, Google appears to be getting a great deal of credit for the Web itself. Throughout, Weise’s language makes this an article about Google as information repository, not as search provider. To be clear: Larry, Serge, and company built a great search tool that helps you find information that other people put on the Web (and one that hands you an advertisement along the way).

3) In somewhat of a contradiction, it appears that people who provide information on the Web are not to be trusted. Weise quotes a research librarian from Georgia:

And even when malicious intent isn’t the problem, mastery of a subject can be, says Jacobson. “The opinions that get heard are from people who have a lot of time to create websites, not necessarily the people with the best information.”

Can’t trust those people who have time to create websites, can you? Oh wait — isn’t that the definition of my Googlebrain? What is curious is that the answer seems to be no, because this comment doesn’t follow the discussion of Google, but… Wikipedia. So Wikipedia is less trustworthy than the Web (aka “Google”)? Oh well.

Further reading: Danah Boyd on the Seigenthaler fuss.


Should Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft Help China Filter Searches?

china1a.bmpAn interesting article from Salon discusses how Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft assist the Chinese government with censorship. The companies filter out search results that the government wants to censor, and they help the government track down individuals engaging in criticism and dissent:

To conduct business in China, popular Internet companies Yahoo, Microsoft and Google have had to accommodate a regime that forbids free speech, bars political parties and jails journalists. This means filtering searches on their sites, censoring news and providing evidence in the trials of political dissidents — or risk having their sites blocked in China. Forced to choose between ignoring the world’s hottest market or implicitly endorsing a system of censorship that a recent Harvard study called “the most sophisticated effort of its kind in the world,” the companies have decided to cooperate.

“Business is business,” Jack Ma, CEO of, which controls Yahoo China, told the Financial Times. “It’s not politics.”

How do companies cooperate? The article explains:

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Google’s Empire, Privacy, and Government Access to Personal Data

google-priv.jpgA New York Times editorial observes:

At a North Carolina strangulation-murder trial this month, prosecutors announced an unusual piece of evidence: Google searches allegedly done by the defendant that included the words “neck” and “snap.” The data were taken from the defendant’s computer, prosecutors say. But it might have come directly from Google, which – unbeknownst to many users – keeps records of every search on its site, in ways that can be traced back to individuals.

This is an interesting fact — Google keeps records of every search in a way that can be traceable to individuals. The op-ed goes on to say:

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Searching the Internet: It’s the Hip Thing to Do

google.jpgIt’s news to make Google even happier as it proceeds in its plans to conquer the world. According to a PEW study, more and more people are searching the Internet with a search engine each day:

The most recent findings from Pew Internet & American Life tracking surveys and consumer behavior trends from the comScore Media Metrix consumer panel show that about 60 million American adults are using search engines on a typical day.

These results from September 2005 represent a sharp increase from mid-2004. Pew Internet Project data from June 2004 show that use of search engines on a typical day has risen from 30% of the internet population to 41%. This means that the number of those using search engines on an average day jumped from roughly 38 million in June 2004 to about 59 million in September 2005 – an increase of about 55%.

comScore data show that from September 2004 to September 2005 the average daily use of search engines jumped from 49.3 million users to 60.7 million users – an increase of 23%.

This means that the use of search engines is edging up on email as a primary internet activity on any given day. The Pew Internet Project data show that on a typical day, email use is still the top internet activity. On any given day, about 52% of American internet users are sending and receiving email.

Related Posts:

1. Solove, When Google Is King

Hat tip: beSpacific