Whose side is technology on, anyway?

Posted: Jan 25, 2006 12:05 AM

A wave of pious indignation and table-thumping has spread across the nation's editorial pages over the freedom to search for Internet porn. Don't get me wrong: I think you do have the right to search for porn. But it is interesting to see what gets people's First Amendment gag reflex going. The Baltimore Sun, for example, warns that a "witch-hunt" for search engine abusers might be around the corner if Google cooperates with the government.

Maureen Dowd, the reigning scribe of unthinking liberalism, recently wrote in The New York Times that Dick Cheney - whom she calls "The Grim Peeper" - is trying to turn America into a "police state." "I don't like the thought of Dick Cheney ogling my Googling," Dowd writes without rhyme or reason.

It was a silly column, even for Dowd, but it does capture a certain level of both the legitimate fear and the outright paranoia out there.

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 evidence 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 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.

But the same crowd celebrating Google's decision has generally been quiet about, for example, public health surveys that ask doctors to report all sorts of really private information for epidemiological purposes. Of course, researchers are blind to the identities of the patients, too. But if you're going to consider it a grotesque infringement on personal liberty for the government to find out that some anonymous person Google-searched "lesbian love goats," you'd think you'd also be upset by the National Institutes of Health cataloging how many people who fit your description have had prostate exams in the last year. The intrusion is at least as bad, but because no one imagines that Dick Cheney cares about your prostate - yet! - the First Amendment thumpers don't offer a peep.

But there is a larger issue worth considering. It has become something of an article of faith that technology is always on the side of liberty. In the old Soviet Union, the Xerox machines were chained up at night in order to prevent unauthorized photocopying. (Of course, they weren't called "Xerox machines" but "Glorious People's Photostatic Replicator" or "Trabant Machine" or some such.) The Soviet authorities recognized that information technology was the enemy of totalitarianism. Freedom of the photocopier was not only freedom of the press, but freedom to communicate, which lies at the core of all liberty.

The Internet age has seemingly confirmed this. In China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and other oppressive regimes, Internet usage is severely policed because the free-flow of information is seen as a threat to the regime.

But even if the liberating power of technology is an iron law of history in the long run, that doesn't mean that in the short run technology can't be on the side of oppression - and the short run can last a lifetime. After all, the Soviets used technology to oppress their people for 70 years.

Technology brings change and requires adaptation - by the state and the individual alike. It's not obvious how we should view Google searches, for example. Are they like letters or diary entries or something else entirely? It's revealing that no sane person would condone local libraries giving stacks of hardcore porn to little kids. But some Internet voluptuaries see nothing wrong with pretty much the exact same thing over the Web.

This is a subject worth arguing about. But it's difficult to take people seriously when their core argument is, "If Dick Cheney's for it, I'm against it."

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