Searching for Answers

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 26, 2006 8:51 AM

It looked like Google was taking a principled stance.

The company whose search engine has become so much a part of our lives that it's hard to remember what we did without it--visit the library, maybe?--just said no to a Bush administration subpoena.

I'm accustomed to battles in which the government is investigating a specific person or company and demands evidence (sometimes from news organizations) to help make the case. But in this child-pornography probe, the feds asked for a week's worth of Google searches by everyone--everyone!--which naturally sent a few shivers up a few million spines. Even if you're not hunting down material that some people might find questionable or offensive, who wants someone snooping into the kind of books you read or underwear you buy? (Yes, I know the material was supposed to be anonymous, but look at all the confidential credit-card information that's been leaked, hacked or stolen.)

So when I heard that Google was resisting, I thought man, those founders, Sergei and the other guy, they really stand up for what they believe. (I also had the thought that springs up like a pop-up ad whenever I think of Google: Why didn't I buy the stock ?)

But then Google goes ahead and caves to the Chinese. That is, the government there is now censoring Google searches to block subversive blogs or other nefarious material more suitable for running-dog capitalists.

As of yesterday, if you type in "human rights" or "Tibet," all kinds of articles are off limits, according to this AP account. If you search for the banned Falun Gong, you're directed to government articles denouncing the group.

Pretty sad. The pragmatic expanation is that this is the price of doing business in another country, that you have to play by their rules. But it seems so un-Google-like.

Maureen Dowd has weighed in on the administration's subpoena, saying: "I don't like the thought of Dick Cheney ogling my Googling.

"Because what I'm Googling, of course, is Dick Cheney. I have to constantly monitor how Vice Voyeur is pushing the federal government to constantly monitor millions of ordinary Americans' phone calls, e-mail notes and Internet searches.

"If you want to know why the Grim Peeper is willing to turn this country into a police state to take his version of democracy to other countries, just do a Google search under 'antiterrorism,' 'government snooping,' 'overreaching' and 'fruitcake.'"

Jonah Goldberg takes issue with Dowd:

"Partisanship is obviously part of the equation. For instance, the heretofore-unknown disease of Cheneyphobia seems to be reaching epidemic proportions. It seems to cause some people to believe that the vice president of the United States has superhuman powers and that he is capable of personally reading hundreds of millions of e-mails while listening to thousands of hours of phone conversations and -- simultaneously -- scanning trillions of web searches.

"Robert Kuttner, writing about a different controversy in the Boston Globe, shows serious symptoms of the affliction when he writes, 'Google plus Dick Cheney is a recipe for undoing the liberties for which the original patriots of the American Revolution bled and died.'

"On the narrow point about Dick Cheney, this is all a bunch of nonsense. The Department of Justice is in a lawsuit with the ACLU over the Child Online Protection Act, which is designed to help prevent kids from being exposed to online porn. The law ran afoul of the First Amendment, according to a lower court, and the Supreme Court asked for additional information pending its final decision on the matter. The Department of Justice asked Google, as well as MSN, Yahoo!, and Time Warner (AOL's parent), to provide data on their search engines from a one-week period. (The Associated Press scarily refers to the request as a 'White House subpoena,' as if the White House could actually issue subpoenas.) No personal information was asked for and none has been given. Everyone but Google complied, because there's really no reason not to. Google, however, sees itself in a very idealistic light and has decided to stand on principle against the government, prompting huzzahs from all the predictable sources."

Are people nervous? The NYT rounds up some Googlers:

"Kathryn Hanson, a former telecommunications engineer who lives in Oakland, Calif., was looking at BBC News online last week when she came across an item about a British politician who had resigned over a reported affair with a 'rent boy.'

"It was the first time Ms. Hanson had seen the term, so, in search of a definition, she typed it into Google. As Ms. Hanson scrolled through the results, she saw that several of the sites were available only to people over 18. She suddenly had a frightening thought. Would Google have to inform the government that she was looking for a rent boy - a young male prostitute?

"Ms. Hanson, 45, immediately told her boyfriend what she had done. 'I told him I'd Googled "rent boy," just in case I got whisked off to some Navy prison in the dead of night,' she said."

Former CNN correspondent Rebecca MacKinnon works the China angle:

"So it has happened. Google has caved in. It has agreed to actively censor a new Chinese-language search service that will be housed on computer servers inside the PRC.

"Obviously this contradicts its stated desire to make information freely available to everybody on the planet, and it contradicts its mission statement: 'don't be evil.' As Mike Langberg at the San Jose Mercury News puts it: their revised motto should now read 'don't be evil more than necessary.' . . .

"Google says they will put up a notice at the bottom of the search page informing users when the results have been filtered. To my knowledge, none of their competitors in China are doing this. Therefore, while not escaping evilness, they do get a brownie point for being more transparent and honest with Chinese users than their competition. But to see how big this brownie point should be, we need to look at where that notification is placed on the page and how obvious it is to the user. We also need to see whether the Chinese government tries to get them to remove that notice, and if so whether they hold their ground."

All right, the season of SOTU leaks is officially under way:

New York Times: "Having stabilized his political standing after a difficult 2005, President Bush is heading into his State of the Union address on Tuesday intent primarily on retaining his party's slim majority in Congress this year and completing unfinished business from his existing agenda.

Unlike last year, when he used the occasion to kick off an ambitious and ultimately failed effort to overhaul Social Security, Mr. Bush seems unlikely to reshape the political landscape with his speech on Tuesday, members of both parties said.

Lawmakers said this election year would not be a good time to push difficult initiatives, and the White House has already shelved what it had initially planned as its big idea for 2006, a rewriting of the tax code.

Administration officials and other Republicans in Washington said Mr. Bush would focus on several topics, including health care, spending restraint, illegal immigration and the nation's international economic competitiveness, as well as an unapologetic restatement of his national security policy."

Washington Post: "President Bush will propose that Americans be allowed to take tax deductions on more of their out-of pocket medical expenses, as part of an initiative the White House believes will rein in soaring health costs by shifting responsibility toward individuals, according to congressional and other sources familiar with the administration's thinking."

Wall Street Journal, which gets an Oval interview: "Speaking less than a week before his annual State of the Union address, Mr. Bush previewed his push to harness market forces to make health care more affordable by giving consumers more direct control of their care. Among other things, Mr. Bush signaled he wants to significantly expand the Health Savings Account program, under which workers who sign up for special high-deductible insurance are allowed to put away money tax-free to bankroll basic expenditures."

Is Rove outfoxing the Dems again? Ron Brownstein says it's a possibility:

"Leading Democrats are challenging President Bush's record on civil liberties across a wide front, inspiring a Republican counterattack that even some Democratic strategists worry could threaten the party in this year's elections.

"From Bush's authorization of warrantless surveillance by the National Security Agency to renewal of the Patriot Act, the president and his critics are battling more intently than at any time since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks over the proper balance between national security and personal liberty.

"In each of these disputes, prominent Democrats -- joined by a few Republicans -- accuse Bush of improperly expanding presidential power and dangerously constricting the rights of Americans. Bush and his allies have fired back by escalating charges that Democrats would weaken America's security by imposing unreasonable restraints on the president. . . .

"That emerging alignment worries some Democratic strategists, who believe it may allow Bush to portray Republicans as stronger than Democrats in fighting terrorism, as he did in the 2002 and 2004 campaigns."

Is there at least one exit strategy in Iraq? Columbia Journalism Review's Paul McLeary seems to find one for the press when he gets to Baghdad:

"Getting a room wasn't a problem; while the hotel used to be full of journalists, many either left the country after the December elections or were pulled out by their publications, which have been cutting back on Baghdad staff as things have gotten progressively more dangerous. The day I checked in, the only people I saw were a few middle-aged Iraqi men in leather jackets forlornly smoking by the front desk, and a lonely cafeteria attendant, sitting at his cash register watching a soap opera.

"In fact, I didn't see any Westerners at all until my second day, when I contacted the acting bureau chief for an American paper who was staying in my hotel. As we were discussing the state of reporting in Baghdad and Iraq in general, he told me that I was a little late to the game. These days, more American reporters are leaving Iraq than arriving. In large part, for the U.S. press, 'The party's pretty much over.'"

Still more on the Howell flap and shutting down public comments, from CBS's Vaughn Ververs:

"The back-and-forth, between Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell and her very vocal critics over the past week brings to mind something I heard a woman blogger once say when asked why blogging seemed to be dominated by men. Her response, I'm paraphrasing here, was basically that the atmosphere is not conducive to attracting women. She felt that women were targeted for more cruel and personal attacks (from both genders) than men, something that has kept them from jumping into the fray.

"It's a generalization, of course, to say that the Web or the blogosphere is dominated by men and their voices, and there are certainly examples of women weighing in on the most contentious issues of the day, on both the left and the right. But in light of the remarks aimed at Howell which caused the to close down its comments section, we can at least ask these questions. Is there a gender gap on the Web? Are women subjected to different kinds of personal attacks and criticism than men? Would the Post's Web site have felt the need to close its comments if a male were under attack? Or is this entire premise just a false attempt at describing some kind of non-existent glass ceiling on the Web? Just asking."

American Journalism Review's Rem Rieder rips those on the left who go too far:

"I never thought I'd see anything to match the right's visceral disdain for Bill Clinton, but I was wrong. Spurred by contempt for President Bush and the media's stumbling performance after 9/11 (symbolized by the WMD fiasco), the left has the MSM squarely in its sights.

"That's been clear for a while, and it was vividly underscored by the online hysteria triggered by Washington Post Ombudsman Deborah Howell's column on the Post's investigation of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

"The fury and vitriol unleashed against Howell was stunning--and disheartening.

"Much has been made of the Web's great contribution to instant and freewheeling political discourse. But this wasn't discourse, this was target practice.

"Now there's no doubt Howell made a mistake. She said both Republicans and Democrats had received 'Abramoff campaign money.'

"Technically that isn't correct. Abramoff didn't make any personal donations to Democrats. But he did direct his Indian tribe clients to give money to both parties, albeit far more to the Republicans. It's a distinction without a difference.

"Yes, as she acknowledges, Howell should have been more precise. But the point she was trying to make was correct. And she never suggested that this was a bipartisan scandal. Much of the column focused on Abramoff's dealings with Republican icon Tom DeLay.

That didn't stop an incredibly vicious--and uninformed--assault on Howell, calling her everything from a Republican hack to all sorts of obscene things it makes no sense to repeat."

There's now a full-fledged blogger effort urging advertisers to boycott Chris Matthews, backed by Daily Kos, Atrios, Americablog and MyDD:

"Chris Matthews has repeatedly compared Americans who are concerned about the war in Iraq to Osama bin Liden. We are asking companies to refrain from advertising on Matthews' MSNBC TV show 'Hardball' until he publicly apologizes and promises to stop his right-wing bias."

Guess he doesn't win points any more for having once worked for Democrats.

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