Canadian activist Doctorow warns of threat from Google, government databases

November 13, 2007 by Mitchell Barber

Information is a very powerful thing. Indeed, in the mind of Canadian activist Cory Doctorow it would seem as though it is perhaps the most dangerous weapon of all. Speaking to the Associated Press, he compares the compilation of data by private companies such as Google to the acts of government entities who allegedly use “giant databases” in order to restrict the civil liberties of both evil doers as well as unsuspecting citizens. The incendiary piece is successful in pointing out that a proper regulatory regime with respect to information gleaned from the internet has yet to be established and raises some valid concerns about how the inherent intellectual property rights are being ignored.

However, when Doctorow attempts to categorize the databases as “a major threat to freedom and privacy”, this comes across as either vague or sensationalist. While it is true that recording the online activities of users should be recognized as potentially problematic, it is foolish to disregard the many practical benefits it provides or to be scared off by the paranoid spectre of “illegitimate users”.

First of all, it is evident that Google collects a substantial amount of valuable information. It is a private enterprise that has the primary goal of producing wealth for its shareholders. What Doctorow underestimates is the fact that it would not be in the best interest of Google to foster an environment where it would become the main contributor in a conspiracy to undermine the freedoms of its customers. By cooperating with a government agency or any other group intent on harassing citizens, Google would risk loosing the goodwill and trust of users. Also, it is unlikely that advertisers (huge financial backers of Google) would wish to be associated with a company that operated in such a manner.

Where Google can improve is in its lacklustre privacy policy. Doctorow makes his most salient point when referring to “Google’s undue optimism about data collection and retention and the potential harm that arises”. The fact is that Google should have a more forceful privacy policy as it is an industry leader. For example, the company could give users more control over their own records by informing the public about the situation and allowing people to choose whether their information can be retained. Most important would be granting the consumer the ability to alter how cookies and search query monitors apply. In addition, publicly disclosing the amount of interaction between Google and regulatory agencies would be an excellent step.

Presumably in response to the failure of internet companies to endorse a principled privacy framework, government regulations have been introduced. According to Doctorow, the ambivalence of Google “has only been checked by European regulators: American regulators have been powerless and not eager to intervene”. Furthermore, it is suggested that the US government would be keen to employ a company such as Google as a way of gaining increased control over the people (he mentions that American authorities already use credit rating information in a similar fashion). Inexplicably, Doctorow fails to mention the impact of Canadian legislation in this area. The Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) protects against the unauthorized use of “information about an identifiable individual”. Thus, it would be illegal for an internet company to release such personal information unless doing so within one of the clearly defined exceptions (e.g. emergency situation). Furthermore, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms would limit the misuse of online information. On the other hand, the international structure of the internet makes it difficult for individual nations to regulate and easier for “illegitimate users” to exploit.

It is on the subject of illegitimate use that Doctorow tries hardest to persuade. He makes emotional statements about how intelligence agencies could use the guise of terrorism to trample the liberties of innocent people. Similarly, it is argued that everyone is vulnerable because of the information held by Google’s database and over the top comparisons are made to abuse of the United States Patriot Act, and even the use of personal records within Nazi Germany while carrying out persecutions. Quite frankly, these fears seem highly unrealistic as people control how they use the internet.

More importantly, online databases can be positively utilized in emergencies, investigations, and crime prevention. Currently, such resources are being used by Interpol to track notorious pedophile Christopher Paul Neil. It would be unreasonable to restrict such genuine uses of online material in an effort to combat the highly speculative dangers outlined by Cory Doctorow.

  1. 2 Responses to “Canadian activist Doctorow warns of threat from Google, government databases”

  2. While I concede that information about a person’s online habits over a period of time won’t usually be something to get excited about, I do think Cory Doctorow makes a crucial argument. Regardless of how harmless such information may be, people do have a reasonable expectation of privacy when they access the internet. The dangers that Doctorow speaks of are not as speculative as they may seem initially. Suppose a university student researches religious extremism on the internet for a school project. Suppose further that this student also happens to be a moderate follower of one of those faiths. If Google were to hand this information over to a government agency, upon its request, just imagine the inferences of terrorism that could be drawn. Recent history demonstrates how there could be disastrous consequences for one’s civil liberties. Doctorow’s point is that it doesn’t matter who you are or why you accessed particular information. The mere fact that you did access it could be used against you.

    My colleague places too much faith in the market or current institutions to come to the rescue. It’s doubtful that Google could resist a request for such information from a government agency even if it wanted to. That users and advertisers would object to such cooperation by Google would not afford the company a defence for its failure to comply. Even the Canadian protections he mentions are limited, as PIPEDA can be overridden in certain situations, and the Charter has its section 1 justification.

    By Afif Hamid on Nov 28, 2007

  3. While it is fairly obvious that Cory Doctorow is against the compilation of information by private companies like Google, there seems to be two valid arguments on the issue. On the one hand, that there are legitimate concerns with private companies accessing and compiling private information from its users, which in turn could lead to privacy violations and abuse. On the other, that the inherent danger in private companies like Google compiling information from their users, if any, has been grossly overstated due to the fact that companies rely on users and attracting users keeps their business afloat and as such would not want them to become apprehensive about using their services. So while it is fairly clear there are two opposing arguments, both of which are equally valid, it is clear that perhaps Doctorow does take his argument too far. For example, my colleague does an excellent job of highlighting that when Doctorow states his theory that governments could hire private companies to get private information on its citizens, that there is absolutely no mention of legislation in this area which would prevent this from being done unless under extreme situations (ex. PIPEDA).

    In sum it is my contention that two valid arguments do exist in this area and that the efforts made by Doctorow in highlighting the possible dangers of private companies compiling information would have been far more effective in convincing his audience if he used plausible arguments and scenarios instead of rather unrealistic and outlandish ones.

    By snawaz on Nov 29, 2007

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