Google's dilemma: privacy vs. police
It's an age-old business dilemma caught up in the new age of globalization: When governments demand something that compromises the interests of customers, what's a company to do?
That's the question now before American telecommunications and Internet companies.
This week, for example, Internet giant Google is launching a new search service in China that, because of government sensitivities there, will limit what users there can access. They already couldn't see links to objectionable sites. Now, they won't be able to use Google for e-mail messaging or writing blogs.
But at the same time as Google is acceding to some Chinese government demands, it is vigorously fighting US government efforts to obtain data on its users' search habits.
Some observers see a double standard. Others call it a careful balancing act. What's clear is that controversies over the electronic intrusiveness of government don't disappear in a data-glutted age. In fact, they're heating up.
Last week in a spirited speech, former Vice President Al Gore called on telecommunications companies to stop helping US federal agents hunt for terrorists by listening in on international calls without a warrant.
Some observers say Google needs to stand up to the US. "I would make absolutely no distinction between what's happening in China and what's happening in this country," says Geoffrey Bowker, director of the Center for Science, Technology and Society at Santa Clara University in California. "The US government has [entered] the overreaching state that governments naturally fall into. They know the data's there. They want to use it.... I'm happy to see Google fighting it."
Others are appalled by the lack of cooperation, especially in time of war.
"I would like to think that there remains a reservoir - call it patriotism, if you will, or call it civic duty - within the private sector that does not require companies to be leaned on in order to cooperate," says Frank Gaffney, president of the Center for Security Policy in Washington. "I have to ask the question: Are these companies, and Google comes to mind, putting up more of a fight to provide assistance to our government in protecting Americans than they are to [resist] Communist China? ... My guess is the answer is yes."
The US government claims to need the data to help reinstate a law aimed at blocking access to child pornography.