Magazine article Information Today

Search Engine Scrutiny

Magazine article Information Today

Search Engine Scrutiny

Article excerpt

Statistics show just how ubiquitous Internet search engines have become. Google and Yahoo!, the two most prominent Internet access companies, have a combined market value of more than $177 billion (I found this figure using Yahoo!). Estimates note that Google searches through an index of as many as 11 billion Web pages (I found this using Google).

"Googling" someone to get more information about him/ her via a search engine has become a common phrase in popular culture. (Using Google, I also found out that, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, "google" is a term used in the sport of cricket. It means to make the cricket ball break and swerve. It's nice to know some things remain traditional.)

Then, it's no surprise that the emergence of search engines as the primary gatekeeper to an increasing amount of the world's information has raised problems and concerns. Issues such as information privacy, skewing results, and concerns about free speech, civil rights, and copyright are getting increasing attention by Internet industry-watchers. A recent conference at Yale Law School took a closer look at privacy, skewed search results, and other issues and raised the question of whether Internet search engines should be regulated.

Search Engine Privacy

Concerns about search engine privacy have been dancing around the Internet for years. In 2002, e-mail outrage about Google's practice of providing address and mapping information when telephone numbers were searched swept through in boxes. While hardly new, Google's practice highlighted the ease with which personal information could be accessed using search engine technology.

Much of the personal information available through Internet search engines has been publicly available for years. Names, addresses, and phone numbers are in the telephone white pages directories, and public records such as real estate values, court filings, and liens can be obtained at the courthouse or city hall.

Before search engines, privacy was protected to some degree by what the law called "practical obscurity." While the information was available to whomever wanted it, a significant effort--such as going to the courthouse with name or file number in hand--was required to obtain it. Getting aggregate information was even more of a challenge, because records were scattered in several physical locations.

Chris Hoofnagle of the Electronic Privacy Information Center addressed some of these concerns at the Yale conference. Hoofnagle suggested that a combination of industry practices and content provider awareness could provide an effective response. He noted that several states have limited the amount of personal information stored in records that are available to the public, and these states are "asking whether [they] even need the information in the first place." Additional information is now restricted due to new privacy laws.

Other content providers should do the same, argued Hoofnagle. The alternate may be additional laws or regulations that would force search engines to excise this data from their indexes.

Retention of Searches

One related problem is how long a search engine can retain data. Cookies that retain search data can be tossed out by the user. Search engine companies retain some information about the searches but generally keep the searcher fairly anonymous. However, the increasing sophistication of search engines could change these practices.

Future generations of search engines may actively supply information based on predictors generated by previous searches, which obviously would require that more information be retained about the searches and searchers. …

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