Jewish World Review May 29, 2003 / 27 Iyar, 5763


How Google has altered work, social habits, increased privacy concerns

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | (KRT) When NBC's "Today Show" wants to take the pulse of America, it goes to Google for the most-requested online searches.

The search engine this month counted country singers Dixie Chicks, the SARS illness, the NFL draft and prom hairstyles among its hottest topics.

Google, the world's most-used search engine, has become a fixture of digital life. Able to instantly search more than 3 billion Web pages about virtually any subject, Google is altering social and business habits - from dating to hiring.

For all the reasons that Google draws users - its speed, its breadth, its accuracy - the Mountain View, Calif., company has increased expectations about what we can find out about each other. It also has raised fears about what others can find out about us.

For his daughter, only 8, "Google is a proxy for the World Wide Web itself," said Jon Greer of Emeryville, Calif.

High-tech guru Stewart Alsop recently confessed in Fortune magazine: "I didn't used to need to do this, but now I can't work effectively without being able to `Google' someone."

One in three Americans online say they have plugged the name of someone they know into a search engine. And one in four have done a "vanity Google," the practice of typing one's own name into the search box to see what comes up.

Launched in 1998 by two Stanford graduate students, Google is a powerful multimillion-dollar company that today says it handles200 million queries a day. Those questions come from some 200 countries and in 88 languages.

As its global dominance grows, Google faces questions of fairness and privacy. And national governments, like China's, have tried to censor the search engine.

"There are a lot of people who certainly worry about a Google backlash, if it gets too powerful," said Tim O'Reilly, a high-tech publisher who has a small investment in Google.

Lynn Wedel, for one, was surprised to learn what shows up in search results.

When you type the Saratoga, Calif., mother's name into Google, up pops details of Wedel's scary trek down Mount Whitney in the dark, her political leanings and how she finished a 60-mile breast cancer walk in tears. Not to mention her home phone number.

Google's technology zeroes in on Wedel's name in an online neighborhood newsletter, on a library bond-campaign Web site and in her daughter's Internet journal of the cancer walk.

"There's too much information, and it's too easy to find," Wedel said. "I didn't know all these things were in the databases."

Nor do most people.

After learning that Google, at her request, will remove her phone number from its PhoneBook feature, Wedel has e-mailed her friends advising them to do the same.

For many in the Internet generation, like Jeanne Hornung, Google has rewritten dating rituals.

The San Francisco publicist, 24, always does a Google check of her dates. One blind date got off to a good start after Hornung told him she was interested in robotics and satellite technology. Only later did she admit to him that a Google search had led her to his physics project on the very subject.

"He was impressed. We dated for six months," Hornung said. But when the tables were turned and another date had found her college honors project through Google, she was caught off guard. "It was weird," she said.

Jevon Fark of Palo Alto, Calif., 27, also searches Google's online database of 425 million photos and images. Does Fark tell his dates?

"Heck, no. It sort of falls under stalking," he said.

Google profiling underscores how hard it is to protect anonymity in the information age.

People are often surprised to find their marathon finish times, club memberships and high school reunion photos online. Typically, a friend, family member or organization has posted the information.

With Google, it's easy to tap the long memory of the Web.

After friends "Googled" him, Brad Neuberg, a Columbia University graduate, learned that among the top results is a link to a 1995political posting from high school.

"It's kind of embarrassing, but it's roughly styled after `The Communist Manifesto,' " said Neuberg. "What you write can come back and bite you."

Google can even follow you to the workplace.

For a growing number of employers, Google is a handy resume checker and allows them to cast a wide virtual net to dig up all they can about the prospect.

Stanford University Professor Vijay Pande did a Google search on candidates applying for a high-level information technology job.

"It's part of the hiring process," said Pande. For that position, "a person's Web presence is important."

"It's a question of what people are saying and how people have linked to their work," he adds.

In pursuit of privacy, some Web users say they have retooled their behavior, online and offline. Some have stopped signing petitions and making political donations, fearing the information will end up online. Others have asked clubs and churches not to post membership lists online. People are learning how to protect their personal sites from search engine Web crawlers.

Google creates its database by using software that searches and indexes 3.1 billion Web pages. Search results include direct links to those pages. The results are ranked by relevance, determined by the quality and number of Web links to a site.

If people are concerned about privacy, Google advises them to ask the Web site operator to remove the information. But information in cached, or stored, sites, where there is no active Web master, may be there in perpetuity.

Google's worldwide popularity also has led many who run Web sites to worry about becoming dependent on Google's search result rankings to drive traffic to their sites.

A businessperson's livelihood can be based solely on a Google search results ranking. A few that have lost prime placement have sued Google, claiming the company is using its clout unfairly.

Google is "not that small, lovable struggling start-up anymore," said Danny Sullivan, editor of Search-EngineWatch.com. "The last thing they want to do is have people think of them in the same light as Microsoft," he said, referring tot he software giant's dominance.

Google said punitive action is necessary when Web site operators try to artificially boost their rankings. One technique, known as a "link farm," is designed to trick Google's automated ranking system into believing the site has far more links than in reality - hence raising its visibility on the search results page.

The global dominance also gives Google special responsibilities to maintain access to as many sites as possible, say freedom-of-speech advocates. In many respects, if a site isn't accessible through a Google search, it might as well not exist for much of the world's Web searchers.

In one case, access became an international incident.

Last year, the government of China temporarily pulled the plug on Google as part of a crackdown on its citizens' access to anti-government sites. Public outcry in China reversed the decision. But the government still restricts some search requests.

In the United States, adherence to copyright law has led Google to tread carefully. The Church of Scientology forced Google last year to remove a link to an opposition site in Europe, which the church claimed had published its copyrighted material.

Today, when somebody complains that online publication of his or her work violates the federal Digital Millennium Copyright Act, Google removes the direct link from its site. In its place, Google inserts a link to a third-party site that, as a public service, publishes a direct link to copyrighted material.

Google itself has come under criticism for collecting data from its users, including browser type and Internet Protocol address. Hypothetically, the information could be used to track a Google user's search patterns, for purposes ranging from rooting out terrorists to serving up targeted ads. Google says it examines a tiny fraction of the information for research and quality-control purposes, and only on an anonymous, aggregated basis.

Underscoring the power of Google to reach into daily lives, some have even suggested that the search engine eventually could be subject to regulation, akin to a public utility.

"They are, after all, free to do what they want to," said Ben Edelman, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School. "But make no mistake about it, if people aren't happy, Google could face regulation. People will want to pass a law."

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© 2003, Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services