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What started out as an act of resistance toward the Bush Administration's effort to obtain porn-related search data, has now turned into something of a PR coup for Google. I don't think this was a calculated move but there's a great deal of good will being generated by Google's thumbing it's nose at the Justice Dept. subpoenas.

Search Engine Journal quotes last week's ABC News report and interview with Google co-founder Larry Page:

"Our company relies on having the trust of our users and using that information for that benefit," said Page. "That's a very strong motivation for us. We're committed to that. If you start to mandate how products are designed, I think that's a really bad path to follow. I think instead we should have laws that protect the privacy of data, for example, from government requests and other kinds of requests."

In the same way that Google's meteoric rise in search made Microsoft appear to be an underdog and thus generated sympathy for the world's largest and most powerful software company, this legal standoff has generated sympathy for Google. The company was starting to experience a backlash that had been slowly building since Google went public in 2004.

A growing number of critics had started to believe that the Mountain View-CA company had become too big and too powerful too quickly. It was starting to appear to some as a "Big Brother," with too much data about too many things.

And while the other portals and search engines have turned over data to varying degrees, with varying justifications and explanations, Google digging in its heels against the Bush Administration at a time when government overreaching and legally dubious behavior is all around seems almost heroic.

Indeed, the move has generated a ton of news reports and PR (most positive), although the stock fell Friday amid the standoff and concern about potentially softening revenues. But Google's stand, at least temporarily, has reversed the perception that the company is becoming Big Brother as it fights what to some is a more real version of Orwell's shadowy political leader portrayed in his 1949 dystopian classic 1984.

Again, I don't think the PR angle was a calculated motivation; I think it was a secondary effect of wanting to keep its search data from disclosure. But by saying "no" to the Justice Dept. Google has raised the stakes and created some high drama that the world is now watching. And if Google now "caves" it may grab as many or more negative headlines and reactions for doing so than it gained for taking a stand.

While I personally applaud it, Google's decision was either very courageous or very arrogant—or a little of both.

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  1. Google has indicated that its refusal to comply with the government request for keyword queries performed at its site is a business decision: "Google is resisting the data subpoena because the company believes the request is burdensome (costly) and a violation of trade secrets" (Google Fights U.S. Data Request, January 23,2006, iMedia Connection). Google's stand conforms to its unflappable insistence on non-transparency in dealing with all constituencies: shareholders, advertisers, contextual ad network partners, media… Google's release of a week's worth of search query keywords, however, would undoubtedly be a highly positive event for the industry and its economics: SEMs, search advertisers, academics, analysts… It is ironic that on the day Google declared search terms entered by the public in its public search box to be "trade secrets", Yahoo had on its home page an invitation to review all terms entered by the public in its public search box during the month of December 2005 and the key word bids for each of the terms, identified by advertiser.

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