The Right Coast

February 02, 2006
Go Lantos go
By Tom Smith

I don't often get the opportunity to praise Democratic Congressmen from California, so I will take this one. Tom Lantos is absolutely right about this. American high tech firms should be ashamed of themselves in their recent dealings with China. Congress should have hearings, dig deep, demand answers, and then, I hope, pass tough legislation that makes not being evil not just a cheap slogan, but the law, at least where evil means using some of the latest information management technology to do the bidding of a ferocious tyranny.

The more I think about this issue, the madder I get. I have spent a lot of time reading and thinking about search technology in the last year or so, in connection with my Web of Law project and my desire to improve legal search technology (which I consider to be extremely lame in in its current form). There is a lot more at stake here than just whether people in the PRC get access to the same set of web sites as we do. Search is just the word we use to describe a rapidly evolving set of technologies that potentially at least may ultimately manage most of the information we use in our lives. So if Google and Microsoft are starting off by blocking out inconvenient websites for their Chinese masters, where will they stop. Are we to believe "OK, So we were evil; but from now on, it's Don't Be Evil! Promise!" So, let's say the Chinese secret police decide some human rights activist has to disappear. Will Google acceed to their request that if you google his name, you will come up with a big nothing, or someone of the same name who sells cute Mao slippers in Canton? And what about records of search queries? The Party might find it very useful to probe the intentions of their subjects. How far is Google willing to go in finding out in what novel and powerful ways information technology and political slavery can be combined? I suppose it's like that old joke: "Now, Madam, we are just dickering over the price."

When I was an obnoxious student activist at Cornell in the 1970's, we found out that a company formerly owned by Cornell was developing a technology called FingerMatch, basically a biometric identification technology, primitive by today's standards, but cutting edge at the time, and trying to sell it to the South African Bureau of Mines and the South African secret police (BOSS), the secret police agency SAVAK in Iran, and a rogue's gallery of other secret police organizations around the world. Biometrics was just what you needed if you have an apartheid system that imposes complicated rules on who can be where at what times in your country. Blacks may all look alike to you, but their fingerprints don't -- so the South Africans were very interested in FingerMatch. We made a stink; what happened is another story. But the point is, technology can be used to implement tyranny, and it can be used in really diabolical ways. With Google and similar technologies you are talking about how to manage information, which means how to manage history, news, hopes, reputations, personal secrets, and much else besides. It is potentially an enormously powerful and dangerous tool, if put into the hands of the likes of the Communist Party of China.

Someone needs to put the fear of God into the heads of our geek geniuses. Let them know that evil may just be part of mission statement to them, to be disguarded when convenient, but it is something the rest of us fear, for good reasons.

AND there is this funny parody.