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Who's Watching Whom?

NEW YORK -- What would George Orwell think of the U.S. government's inquiry of search data to see a snapshot of just what people are searching for?

Amid the fallout of the inquiry, industry experts convened at the Search Engine Strategies 2006 Conference & Expo here to put a face on the issue during a panel discussion called "Who's Watching Whom: Search & Privacy."

"For the last 10 years or so, there's been a push by the government to control the Internet," said Tim Wu, co-author of Who Controls the Internet? and a Columbia Law School professor.

"In the future, I think we may see a trend where search engines are where countries seek to express their whole range of governmental policies."

The future may already be upon us.

The U.S. Department of Justice (DoJ) is in the midst of a suit against search giant Google to compel the company to turn over data from a random sampling of 1 million or so of its Web pages.

As internetnews.com reported, the demand for search data is part of the government's defense of Child Online Protection Act (COPA), which has been ruled unconstitutional.

The Justice Department is asking only for a sample of URLs and search queries, according to the response.

"No individual user of Google, or of any other search engine, need fear that his or her personal identifying will be disclosed," according to a recent government brief.

The three other industry leaders, Microsoft, America Online and Yahoo, have all already complied with the order.

"Search engines compile a lot of data on what we search for and much of what we search for is personal," added panelist Danny Sullivan, Editor of SearchEngineWatch.com. "Many people fear that the government wants to do data mining. It'll be interesting to see how much of all this ultimately becomes a political issue."

Much of the panel discussion centered upon that very notion -- the underlying motivation behind the ever-widening desire to probe.

"The two categories of concern here are what information is actually gathered by the search engines and, provided it finds itself in the hands of the government, how the data will be cross-referenced and eventually made use of," said Sherwin Siy, staff counsel of the Internet Public Interest Opportunities Program at EPIC.

"The brevity of all this goes far beyond just the obvious," he continued. "The way public records are accessed, how easy all that becomes, things like that stand to be forever altered."

Indeed, one of the strangleholds among American Internet users has long been thought to be the apparent anonymous nature in which browsers are able to facilitate their searches and operate overall.

Advocates of the DoJ inquiry are quick to point out that last year alone an industry publication pegged the amount spent on online adult entertainment at a staggering $2.5 billion.

This comes as a growing concern to government officials, who, nonetheless, maintain that it is not their intent to obtain any identifiable information pursuant to any particular individual.

"The privacy of our customers is paramount and we will do our utmost to protect consumer data from government overtures," said panelist and MSN Search Group Program Manager Ramez Naam, in articulating Microsoft's ultimate decision to comply with the decree.

"Our hope is that the value of all this information will somehow allow us to provide our consumers with a greater service."