Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Don't Be Evil . . . Unless the Month Has an "E" in It

Like this Google screen? You can make your own with the Logogle site.

Maybe it's just me, but I still find it mysterious to puzzle out how a corporation that dominates a niche industry, like Google does search engines, can become the darling of privacy advocates and champions of fair use. Anyone who has been reading the New York Times knows better, particularly lately if they have followed how Google has, like Microsoft and Yahoo, agreeably "customized" products to please the authoritarian regime in China. It's obviously no accident, because this "customizing" has taken two distinct forms: 1) making the Internet an exclusively passive, receptive medium by cutting off its productive and potentially politically resistant capacities ("Version of Google in China Won't Offer E-mail or Blogs") and 2) limiting that receptivity further by restricting the reach of search engines to return results only from state-sanctioned search terms ("Internet Lions Turn Paper Tiger in China").

My old prep school classmate and Google hagiographer John Battelle might disagree, since he has called a recent defense of the company "eloquent." (C'mon John! Google fight!)

There is no question in my mind that Google is on the right side of recent litigation as a defendant in two pending cases (about digitizing works still in copyright and protecting information from private online searches). But I think Larry Flynt has been at the courtroom table of the just in many cases too, and I still won't be recommending reading Hustler to my students.

Instead, I fear Siva Vaidhyanathan's essay, published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, may prove to be ultimately prophetic. Universities and libraries may indeed be taking "A Risky Gamble with Google" by placing too much trust in corporate solutions for access and archiving problems in the digital age.

Certainly, from my own research, I can understand why Google's advances are so tempting to librarians. I have written about the failure of ambitious national efforts at digitization in the name of the common good, because neither the funding nor the political will is there. In addition, my U.C. colleague Diane Harley, principal investigator of the Digital Resource Study, has shown how search results from Google already trump more authoritative offerings from digital collections being developed by traditional institutions of knowledge. Harley's project builds on the work of another U.C. person, Christine Borgman, who has studied online searching for over two decades. (Those who haven't been following the Google print controversy can see some of the relevant materials in this partial bibliography.)

A lot has been written about these issues in the blogosphere, but it still seems worth getting into the fray, now that the President of the University of Michigan is defending Google against the Google Book Search lawsuit, while -- at the same time -- the Attorney General's office has issued Google a subpoena in connection with the company's refusal to hand over search data to better understand the practices of online porn seekers, which was recently described in the New York Times ("Google resists U.S. Subpoena of Seach Data"). Usually I happily take the side of academia in public policy debates and reject the claims of the current administration, but I think that there's some rhetorical complexity in these cases worth examining.

So, here's my sketchy rhetorician's three-paragraph comparison-and-contrast essay in which I compare "Gonzales v. Google" by the Feds to "Google, The Khmer Rouge and the Public Good" by Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman.

Although Gonzales and Coleman paint radically different pictures of Google's corporate behavior, both speakers are making appeals to the interests of the public good. Specifically, both emphasize the concept of duty, which Coleman calls one's "responsibilities and obligations."

Coleman characterizes the partnership between the university and Google as a "legal, ethical, and noble endeavor that will transform our society." Of course, it's ironic that Coleman opens with an anecdote about the Library of Congress, given that the Library's Coca Cola fiasco shows the dangers of allowing corporations to dictate the digitization agenda. Coleman also uses the example of the Khmer Rouge's destruction of documents and cultural artifacts. At my own university, the Southeast Asian Archive collects such artifacts, and it has been struggling to find funding for its digitization projects. Apparently corporate giants see no potential revenue stream from such work, and the archive is dependent upon benefactors from the local refugee community for support.

Gonzales focuses on defending the constitutionality of the Clinton era Online Child Protection Act on factual merits on behalf of the greater good. In contrast, he claims shifty self-interested Google "has asserted objections of relevance, of privilege, and of burden." He devotes a considerable amount of his critique to ridiculing Google's proprietary claim of "trade secrets." It's ironic to have a Bush appointee speaking about corporate responsibility with such conviction, but Google's legal challenge seems to have less to do with First or Fourth Amendment issues than has been reported in the press, based on the point-by-point rebuttal from the DOJ.


I have to add that the administration's rhetoric about "protecting children" still really hacks me off as a parent and educator.

Of course, there are other solutions to porn-fed children besides censorship or filtering software. Many families now have a family computer in the kitchen or in other public household space. We use a portable USB connector to our house's wireless system -- so that if we go out without our thirteen-year-old, we can take the Internet with us. There's certainly a failure of imagination to be blamed.

In my opinion, the whole online porn thing is a huge distraction from the much more serious issue of how we should be training our children in information literacy. Kids use their computers primarily for required school reports, and the government -- along with our entire society -- is doing nothing to teach them how to read new media critically.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Surprising, when you consider what a fine job they're doing of teaching kids how to read all the old media critically.

6:58 AM  

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