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    Location: Aberystwyth, Wales, United Kingdom

    I am the owner and managing director of Information Automation Limited (IAL), a company that specialises in research, consultancy and training for the information profession. We are particularly interested in all forms of electronic information resources (e-journals, e-books, etc) and I teach a course in electronic publishing at the Department of Information Studies in Aberystwyth. Drilling down still further(!), my interests centre on the quality and evaluation of electronic information, and in the thinking that underpins activities in library and information science.


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    Friday, January 27, 2006

    Google and the ethics of being the subject of research

    A longish entry on January 19 by Ben Vershbow on if:book - The book is reading you - wonders about the information that Google collects from its users - particularly with reference to Google Book Search and the need to sign in before viewing pages of in-copyright books. Google is ...
    capturing your clickstreams, analyzing what you've searched and the terms you've used to get there. ... Google will use this data to refine Google's search algorithms and, who knows, might even develop some sort of personalized recommendation system similar to Amazon's
    Is this a problem? We all know that Google (and most other Web interfaces) collect information about their users, and that they use this information to evolve and improve. Let's not be naive about this, there is little altruism involved, they want to gain a greater market share and, of course, more revenue. If, at the same time, this makes for an improved service to us, the users, then more power to their elbow.
    Unless. Unless...
    What happens to all that data? Is it collected, stored, used and re-used in an ethical manner? Does it identify individuals? Do they sell it on? Can they be forced to hand it over to the government (for whatever they may do with it!)? Only recently Google faced (and is facing) such a problem when it was asked to hand over a:
    "random sample" of 1 million Web site addresses found in Google's search engine index and the other is that it provide the government with the text of all queries filed on the search engine during a specific week. ... U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on Wednesday filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California a motion to compel Google to comply with the government's subpoena.

    The ACLU lawsuit, filed in 1998, challenges the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) law, which aims to protect minors from the effects of exposure to sexually explicit material on the Internet.

    Nicole Wong, Google's associate general counsel, said in a prepared statement e-mailed to IDG News Service: "Google is not a party to this lawsuit and their demand for information overreaches. We had lengthy discussions with them to try to resolve this, but were not able to and we intend to resist their motion vigorously." (InfoWorld)

    OK - so Google is resisting this subpoena - but it may not be able to do so for very long. Even then, we do not know to what other uses their data is put.

    Rob Hughes asked recently on LIS-UKeiG about ethical search engines - perhaps one way of collecting data ethically is to be up-front about how it is used, and what risks this entails. To my mind, the most ethical search engine may not be the one which collects least personal data, but would be the one that publishes details of what is collects, why, and how it is used.

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