"With so many people searching for keywords like murder, kill, suicide, etc., are we a mentally/emotionally sick nation?" writes a concerned AOLer at AOLSearchLogs.com, a forum that accompanies a searchable database of AOL user's queries.
Another AOLer moves swiftly to quell his concerns.
"As a whole, no," responds 'Matthew', with the confidence of a veterinary surgeon approaching a rabbit with a chloroform-soaked rag in his hand.
"It can only help make more complete human beings when our minds have been soothed with the information or images they want."
If you say so.
AOL's decision to release the search queries from more than half a million users made over a three month period, a decision it now says it regrets, has certainly added enormously to the gaiety of the nations.
And it's a story, you may have noticed, that's exciting non-technical internet users far more than those of us who prognosticate upon it, or who write XML parsers for a living, or who feel moved to celebrate "One Web Day".
(Your reporter has written to "One Web Day" with the suggestion that Harold Pinter could be employed to read out some of the more memorable AOL search queries, but I fear it may not be in keeping with the upbeat tone the organizers are seeking.)
The horrors, you're already familiar with. But readers have been nominating the strangest and most banal queries AOLers type into their computers, for example:
"nicole richie is so funny"
... being possibly the strangest and most banal "question" anyone has ever "asked" (thank you, Ian); in addition to spotting tragic narratives. For this heartbreaking sequence, thank YTMND. Just click to enlarge:
In the aftermath of the scandal, privacy groups demanded the only sensible answer to the problem. Search engines can only regain the trust of the public if they delete the search queries as soon as they get them. After all, we've established that these questions were never intended to be made public - and in many cases, would only have been made with the assumption that no one would ever see them. So what business do these commercial organizations have hoarding this information?
But alas, said Google CEO Eric Schmidt with a sigh, this is just something they couldn't do.
Google recently successfully fought a government subpoena to hand over such information to the Department of Justice, while AOL, MSN and Yahoo! meekly complied. But Google didn't do so in the name of "civil rights", with which it has a fairly casual relationship, but rather because it feared its "proprietary" algorithms might be compromised. Google explicitly said so in its legal briefs. In other words, a cynic might conclude, it did so for entirely selfish reasons, but saw a low-cost publicity bonus as a consequence.
For reporters, Schmidt had this Churchillian assurance:
"We are reasonably satisfied ... that this sort of thing would not happen at Google, although you can never say never."
Not exactly inspiring, and Google, along with every other commercial search engine, may be underestimating the visceral impact of this episode.
As Seth Finkelstein notes, it's been something of a watershed week for the internet:
"There's a teachable moment happening right before our eyes, where conventional wisdom is being changed. Concerns about the implications of data retention, search logs, privacy invasion, etc, are suddenly moving from the outer reaches (ie. civil-libertarians) of polite society, to be respectable issues-of-the-day," he writes.
These concerns have undoubtedly resonated with the public on a far greater scale than the technorati have begun to realize. If you doubt it, find some people for whom "Google" is a recently-acquired verb. They'll be able to tell you.
There's nothing like The New York Times ringing you up out of the blue to confirm your porn tastes, or diet fears, that so concentrates the mind.
Seth Finkelstein also has some good advice, for a techie: in the short-term use an anonymizing search engine such as Scroogle. We may also add, use an anonymizing search engine, or a meta search engine, and reject Google cookies.
In the longer term, however, only commonsense legislation can prevent these large commercial organizations from exploiting data that shouldn't exist in the first place.
The "Zero Retention" campaign may have just kicked into life. ®