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You’ve Got Jail

Posted on Jan 24, 2006
AOL and Victorias Secret
Illustration by Karen Spector

By Robert Scheer

In case someone in the Justice Department is reading this, let me hasten to explain why I just clicked on the Victoria’s Secret online catalog photo featuring a certain “Very Sexy Lace & Mesh Garter Belt.” AOL made me do it.

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Yes, the very same AOL that, like Yahoo and MSN, but not Google, has readily agreed to let you government snoops scrutinize the search words and results from its online search engine data archives. If AOL is going to let the government know where I’ve been, it should admit it entrapped me!

(Honestly, officer, I heard that perky voice say “You’ve got mail,” and then this ad popped up, and there was this lady in her undergarments, and anyway it was just research.)

OK, so for the time being, Bush administration officials claim they won’t try to connect my name, or yours, with the massive raw data they are demanding from the companies with the most popular search engines. Apparently they are seeking evidence to prove that online porn is very popular and easily accessible as part of a last-ditch lawsuit to implement the 1998 Child Online Protection Act, blocked by the courts.

I’m not sure that proving the popularity of pornography is going to make the case for censoring it, but the point here today is my extreme discomfort with the Justice Department’s cozy relationship with online giants like Microsoft and AOL, which already know way, way too much about how we as individuals use the Internet. Why should I trust the Justice Department any more than I trust the NSA, which bugs phone calls and scans e-mails without warrants, or Homeland Security, which looks for terrorists by scrutinizing bookstore purchases and library checkouts?


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Bottom line is these guys in the Bush administration are obsessed voyeurs, poking their noses into everyone’s business, whether the excuse is squelching pornography or preventing terrorism. They simply do not believe civil liberties and privacy are important. It is an executive branch power trip, and completely anti-democratic.

Corporations, of course, are not built to think about such lofty ideas as democracy, however, focusing instead on profits. In the world of high-tech privacy, companies like AOL are also two-timers, collecting data on us users of their services so they can better feed us advertising and other revenue-generating products, even as they try to protect that data from identity thieves.

In acquiescing to the unwarranted demand of the Justice Department to pore over the companies’ records, AOL, Yahoo and Microsoft are sliding down a slippery slope, unconvincingly claiming that the data dump to the feds has no implications for online privacy. Does anybody think they won’t cooperate if the government comes back and asks for IP addresses—your computer’s unique signature on the Web—for everybody who dared type in a questionable search like “growing marijuana” or “fertilizer bombs’‘?

The fact is, until Google made its demur public, these companies didn’t even tell us about the deals they were cutting with the feds, and they are still not being forthcoming with what exactly they’ve given up to date. We only have their word that they are protecting our privacy.

“This is the government’s nose under the search engine’s tent,” said Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “If companies like Google respond to this kind of subpoena ... I don’t see why the next subpoena might not say, ‘Give us what we asked for the last time—plus a little more.’ “

Fortunately, Google, the latest high-tech upstart giant, dared to challenge the government’s claim of an unbridled right to break into our information-age virtual homes. While avoiding the privacy argument as the others did because individual IP addresses were not requested at this time, Google forthrightly sounded the alarm on government arrogance.

“Google is not a party to this lawsuit and [the DOJ’s] demand for information overreaches,” said a company statement. The subpoena is “overbroad, unduly burdensome, vague and intended to harass,” argued a company lawyer.

Whether its motivation is moral or simply concern about the bottom line, it is a good thing Google has the corporate guts to resist an administration that is addicted to overreaching.

As for the guardians of my data over at Time Warner’s AOL, I can only hope that when the spooks take their information demands to the next level, AOL will back up my plea that it was merely a slip of the mouse that hyper-linked me to the Victoria’s Secret catalog, and not verboten lust.

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By tom, January 31, 2006 at 7:16 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

It’s telling that something like 50 million of us don’t have insurance, kids are starving in our cities every day, layoffs and downsizing are ruining our industrial base, everyone is debt, work grows longer, pay shorter, gas costs a mint, disabilities and sexual and ethnic minorities are more oppressed than in the last 30 years, medicine is a “priviledge”, bankruptcy is sin (unless you’re rich or a corporation), insane taxes only the rich can afford, schools suck and the power structure is happily ruining us economically in order to force the poor into the military…

And these guys want to ban pornography on the web—God help us.

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By John, January 29, 2006 at 2:52 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

... and you guys (and gals) at TruthDig will “get jail” shortly if you don’t desist from graphically altering corporate logos ... inclusive of the fine work you’ve recently done with new backgrounds for those from Google and AOL!

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By Jim MacKrell, January 28, 2006 at 12:47 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Want to boil a frog with out the frog feeling pain. Put it in a pot of water and slowly turn up the heat. Are we all getting boiled and just happy to be in warm water?

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By dckest, January 27, 2006 at 11:50 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Good comments from all but I am still left to wonder with all this secret snooping for so long where is the payoff…. The VP claims many plots have been thwarted by the use of this program. I say, if so, then prove it! Show us the results from this illegal activity!
I might be swayed if there were any results at all…. these guys don’t have squat!

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By jethro, January 27, 2006 at 7:55 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

why not have everyone just cc the govt on all emails and play with them. we can all also use http://www.whitehouse.con er um .com as our homepage to see the justifications. I am confused if it is just to see if the filters are working then why not hire 200 highschool kids and set them in front of computers to find the porn; or use the IRS to see how well the porn industry is doing; or are they trying to see how much US$ is being spent overseas on foreign pornsights- are losing to those markets too?

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By Ekarhu, January 27, 2006 at 2:38 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

But Google did agree to censor results at the behest of the Chinese Government…

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By Martin Ostrye, January 26, 2006 at 3:02 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

That was a very clever article.  Well done.

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By roberto, January 25, 2006 at 7:42 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

So your example of getting busted for browsing for online porn is clicking on a Victoria’s Secret ad?

Oh how naughty. And how quaint.

C’mon Mr Scheer! I think you just don’t want to let on that you are hip enough to know about searching Yahoo for “anal teen sex cheerleaders”.

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By rex, January 25, 2006 at 5:12 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

In a recent article Michael Chertoff said that
we barely had enough computer power and experts
to spy on the ” real terrorists” so US citizens did not need to fear wholesale internet spying by the government.
I wonder how he would explain this
sudden ability to monitor billions of internet
searches for totally non-terrorist reasons if we are in such a desperate “war on terror” requiring all of our computer analysis resources?
The priorities seem bizarre like the massive FBI spying on that brothel in New Orleans in the summer of 2001 while Osama bin Laden was openly threatening to attack the US in several published statements and nobody was paying any attention.

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By Recovering Prosecutor, January 25, 2006 at 2:23 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I agree with “lunchbox,” but won’t let that stop me from expanding on his/her comments.

First, the information they’ve subpoenaed (presumably using a civil discovery subpoena) are business records.  Google could oppose production or restrict their dissemination on the grounds of trade secrets, but the fact is that this information is probably within the adage that a party to a court case is entitled to “every man’s evidence.”  It’s one thing to complain about whether this case is worth this subpoena, another thing altogether to argue that these kind of routine business records should be immunized.

(I have a related gripe about my fellow progressive’s hangup about the Patriot Act’s so-called “library records” provision—does no one remember the good old card-catalog days when you could find out the supposedly top-secret personal information about who checked out a book, simply by looking at the previous entries in the 3x5 card in the back?)

Second, the kind of information that everyone fears being produced—e.g., search terms used by specific persons—is already protected by federal law (you can look it up, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, 18 USC 2701-2712), and providers can’t turn it over without a court order.  (I know that it’s not unreasonable or paranoid to imagine this administration asserting that it doesn’t need no stinking court order to get the records, but I’m assuming that the War on Porn is not being fought with the same disregard for the law as the War on Terror.)

So despite my utter dislike of the Bush Administration, and my belief that the War on Porn is a real disservice to the war on child exploitation, I don’t see this as much more than an additional drain on limited federal resources.

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By Stephen, January 25, 2006 at 12:11 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I wonder if Bush/Rove will add this snooping issue to their campaign to justify warrentless wiretapping.

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By John Earl, January 25, 2006 at 10:45 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

What was it I heard about getting big government out of your lives? Oh, that was only about ending government regulation of corporations, you know, on things like consumer or worker safety, tax evasion and pollution.

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By NETTIE, January 25, 2006 at 10:35 am Link to this comment
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By John Donich, January 25, 2006 at 10:01 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I think the real scary thing about this is the Bush administration has implemented everything that they think is necessary to fortify what they think this country is, the most powerful and rich people in the world.  The philosophy of the administration goes at keeping this group of people where they are.  The fact that google won’t give up the information is moot because AOL and Yahoo have already allowed them to attain basically everything that they need to research a demographic of interest.  Furthermore, I don’t think it is about porn.  Porn is legal but disgusting to many, thus the bush administration uses porn to make a case for looking at how people do research on the net, I can almost guarantee that porn is not their number one interest.  Do not underestimate these people intellect and brilliance at achieving what ever it is they want to.  This action is a small piece of a plan and philosophy to understand how people in this country operate so that they can manipulate the media in a way to achieve what ever it is they what.  BTW their plan has worked nearly flawlessly with a only couple major blunders like Iraq.

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By Lunchbox, January 25, 2006 at 9:33 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

the real reason for doing this is not to get their foot in the door. The step they have taken, at most, would be a toe on the sidewalk by your house. The government is allowed to ask for this information. There is nothing private or protected about the information they’ve requested. They can’t search google themselves because they want to see the percentage of searches that are porn related. Also I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but noone uses MSN, or yahoo anymore. So the sample from these engines isn’t large enough.

Bottom line is that there is no legal way for there to be a jump from this request to a request involving personal information. They are completely different issues, thus in a court the cases would never be compared.

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By Sam Snedegar, January 25, 2006 at 5:43 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

It is amazing how soon the corruption starts when any new group takes over a government. The great depression brought Roosevelt and the “new deal,” and it wasn’t long before the government became the enemy of the people instead of the savior. The Nazis rose on the ashes of a corrupt system in Germany, and it wasn’t long before there were the Himmlers and the Goebbels and the Heydrichs and the Bormanns and the Mengeles and so on.

Change the names, and you have the Bush administration with heads of police, propaganda, and finance looking for ways to keep the people from being able to effect change while they are being screwed.

And the big lie is always going to be that what they are doing to our freedoms and rights is for our own good, to keep us safe.

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By Susan Block, January 25, 2006 at 4:59 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Yes, there’s an eerie sexual aspect to Dubya’s illegal domestic spying program as well as the DOJ’s demand for search engine data archives, and that is nonconsensual voyeurism. The man in our White House is a man who likes to listen in on people’s private conversations (and won’t even ask permission, even though permission is ridiculously easy to get), read people’s private messages and stalk people as they go shopping (on the Internet). The man is a Peeping Tom. We impeached one president over a botched blow-job. But being a Peeping Tom is worse. For one thing, it’s not consensual.

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By Anon, January 25, 2006 at 4:53 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Good on Google for doing this. It is nothing to do with assessing how much pornography there is on the internet, if it was then surely they can just use MSN and Yahoo’s results to bring them to the shocking conclusion that, yes there is a ton of porn on the internet, or perhaps they could just look on Google themselves.

The real reason for it is to get their foot in the door, if they had asked for information on IP addresses straight off then Yahoo and MSN might have responded in the same way, but if they agree to this then the jump to giving IP address information is a lot smaller.

The best way for a government to go too far with regards to privacy is not for one day shock their voters and tell them they will be snooping in on everything they do, but to gradually take small steps towards this, justifying each of them with things like protecting children, hunting terrorists.

Good luck to Google

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By rabblerowzer, January 25, 2006 at 4:00 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Scheer neglected to provide a link to Victoria’s catalogue website & I can’t find it.


Would someone please provide the link.


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By Steven Domingos, January 25, 2006 at 3:11 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Now, are advertisers going to gamble that people will not abandon AOL, MSN, and Yahoo searches out of fear of government intrusions into their private internet activities? Google $500? Hell, Google $1000. What an incredible wind-fall.

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By Lunchbox, January 25, 2006 at 1:45 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The term “overreaches” is describing the government’s presumed inability to subpoena information from google in a suit with which google isn’t a party. NOT that the government is overextending itself with respect to our civil liberties. Google is not fighting a fight for the people here, it’s fighting for its own agenda (google’s a big nasty corporation too). Much of google’s revenue is made from the porn industry ads. if people stop searching for porn, google stops posting advertisements for porn sites, and they then lose quite a bit of money.

The argument that allowing the government to get this information sets a bad precedent allowing for more malicious requests in the future, is a bad one. The information they seek is in no way linked to anyone. Books have been published by search engines containing search terms that they’ve recorded (see ask-jeeves). There is no privacy issue here.

Allowing the government to get information that the constitution doesn’t prohibit from them isn’t setting bad precedent (you can’t give a speeding ticket to someone going the speed limit). Linking a decision here in the government’s favor to a privacy issue in the future is illogical.

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