A simple prescription for keeping Google's records out of government hands.
The other alternative is that we all just accept this limitation on our freedom and learn to be more careful. If you go around googling "gay cowboy," perhaps you're just asking for trouble. Perhaps one should live, as they say, as if everything you do will soon show up on Page A1 of the New York Observer. But living like that—as if everything you do will be publicly aired one day—is wretched, and the exact opposite of what it means to be living in a free society.
Other countries know this well. That's why, for example, China pays so much attention to controlling what you can find using its search engines. The whole point of Chinese media control is to promote the sense that you are being watched, even if you aren't. That's not a feeling Americans should want or become accustomed to. We should want a country where we can assume that most of what we say disappears into thin air or cyberspace, because in the end that's the only way to stay sane.
Recent events suggest that relying on the present administration to protect such basic freedoms may be, shall we say, unpromising. Other governments are just as bad if not worse. That's why the public's demand must be of Google—not the state. It should be that Google please stop keeping quite so much information attached to our IP addresses; please modify logging practices so that all identifying information is stripped. And please run history's greatest "search and delete," right now, and take out the IP addresses from every file that contains everyone's last five years of searches.
Where Google goes, the rest will follow. And if the search engines do what is suggested here, the subpoenas, when they come, will become like wiretaps—something that must be turned on, rather than merely searched. Today's search engines are close to an "always on" wiretap. Even for someone like myself who's hardly a privacy activist, that's a bit too scary. Google, and the rest of the search engine industry need to learn how to better keep our secrets.
Photograph of people walking over Google logo by Torsten Silz/AFP/Getty Images.