Feds again look idiotic enforcing needless law

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March 23, 2006|By MIKE HIMOWITZ | MIKE HIMOWITZ,SUN COLUMNIST

Score one in the moral victory column for Google. Alone among its peers, it battled snoops from the Justice Department who tried to pry sensitive information out of the Internet's major search engines in a hapless battle to revive a bad law that's supposed to protect kids from Internet porn.

Last Friday, U.S. District Judge James Ware ordered Google to give the government the Internet addresses of 50,000 Web sites selected at random from the zillions of pages it indexes. But Ware rejected the Bush administration's request for a sample of actual search terms that users had entered - which privacy advocates called a major victory.

Considering that the government originally demanded the names of a million Web sites and a full week's worth of search terms - hundreds of millions - it's hard to see the decision as anything but a gesture to keep the Justice Department from looking completely ridiculous. Which it has had no trouble doing for the past six years in its defense of the so-called Child Online Privacy Protection Act.

The names of Web sites are already public information - by definition. People don't exactly create Web sites - particularly porn sites - with the idea of keeping them secret. And the other big search engines, including America Online, Yahoo and MSN, had already rolled over and given the feds everything they wanted - including detailed search requests.

So in the end, the decision left Google staking out the high ground. It can claim it fought to keep its customers' searches confidential - and prevailed - while the competition surrendered to the barbarians without firing a shot.

Unfortunately, it's not that simple.

Google itself never raised the issue of its customers' privacy - and the government never asked for personally identifiable data. The feds merely wanted anonymous terms that people typed in. Google, meanwhile, was interested in its own privacy. It was afraid that the large amount of data the government wanted would inevitably disclose Google's trade secrets - the way it indexes Web sites and its legendary ability to hit the right one.

So the government will have to use the data it already has to prove its case: that current Internet filtering programs aren't good enough to keep porn out of the hands of kids.

That's what the argument over COPA has boiled down to. This truly awful law has been bouncing around the courts for almost eight years now. It would require all Web sites to rid themselves of any material that's "harmful to minors," whatever that means.

Are we talking about hard-core porn here? Or the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue? Sites with information on birth control? Prosecutors in red states and blue states will undoubtedly have different ideas about who's offending and who's not. Which means a real mess.

The only alternative COPA offers Web site operators is to ensure - via a credit card or some kind of nonexistent digital "age certificate" that their customers are 17 or over. Another Great Leap Forward for the world's identity thieves.

Anyway, the Supreme Court has left things like this: The only way the government can prevail is to prove that there is no technological alternative to restricting the rights of adults and publishers.

So the Justice Department now has a long list of Web sites, and plenty of search terms to test. Which opens up even more interesting questions. Are filters that block 95 percent of porn sites good enough? How about 80 percent?

This law is so bad for so many reasons that it will probably take another seven years for the Supreme Court to settle all the possible appeals. Meanwhile, the best bet for parents who are rightly concerned about their kids online is to install filtering software, or activate what they already have.

AOL, MSN and many other big Internet service providers already offer filtering free of charge. Most Internet security suites - better known for their virus checkers and firewalls - have parental controls, too. There are also plenty of dedicated filtering programs, such as CyberSitter and NetNanny. But parents have to make sure they're available and turned on.

Creative marketing

I've been getting e-mail lately from shoppers who want to know whether they should buy one of the new Intel "Viiv" computers or whether another brand would do as well.

The answer - buy a Viiv machine if you like its features, but there's no need to choose it over any other "brand." Viiv's main advantage is the advertising budget Intel has put behind it.

Viiv (rhymes with "five") is a monicker that Intel's marketing whizzes came up with to describe a multimedia computer that not only has a high-end Intel processor - the company's traditional core product - but also a variety of supporting chips and a network adapter, all made by Intel.

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