The Disciplinary Gaze of Web Search Engines

Blogging has been light (again), as I’ve been preparing for my final conference trip. This time, I’m in San Antonio, TX for the 92nd Annual Convention of the National Communication Association. I’m presenting on an amazing panel titled “Visualizing Security: Digitizing Surveillance and the Body” with Shoshana Magnet (Institute of Communciations Research, Illinois, Urbana-Champaign), Kelly Gates (Media Studies, Queens College, CUNY), and Rachel Hall (Communication Studies, Louisiana State University).

My paper is on Google as an infrastructure of dataveillance, a draft of which can be downloaded here (PDF). Below is the abstract:

The Disciplinary Gaze of Web Search Engines: Google as an Infrastructure of Dataveillance

In January 2006, the web search engine Google resisted requests from the U.S. Department of Justice to turn over a large amount of information on its users’ search behavior to help police illegal Internet pornography. It was later revealed that three other search engine providers – America Online, Yahoo and Microsoft – had previously complied with government subpoenas in the case, unbeknownst to their users. These events have brought concerns of the surveillance of one’s online activities, including one’s web search engine histories, to the forefront of many citizens’ minds.

Instances of “everyday surveillance” (Staples, 2000), whether in the form of facial recognition cameras on public streets, the biometric scanning of identification documents, or the tracking of online intellectual activities, contribute to the potential “panoptic sorting” (Gandy, 1993) of citizens into disciplinary categories often under governmental scrutiny. As the power and ubiquity of such surveillance technologies increase, it becomes arduous for everyday users to question or understand their value implications, and easier to take the design of such tools “at interface value” (Turkle, 1995, p. 103).

The surveillance and aggregation of one’s online search activity poses numerous privacy and discriminatory threats, and such concerns become aggravated by the possibility of the information being indiscriminately shared with government authorities. This paper will bring clarity to the surveillance threats of web search engines, and argue for the protection of the privacy of one’s online intellectual activities free from the disciplinary gaze of governmentality.

2 Comments

  1. “In January 2006, the web search engine Google resisted requests from the U.S. Department of Justice to turn over a large amount of information on its users’ search behavior to help police illegal Internet pornography.”

    *whimper* *whimper* *whimper* …

    Don’t you read me?

    So many things wrong with this ….

    1) It’s not about ” illegal Internet pornography.” – it’s about minor and (adult) legal Internet pornography.

    2) Calling it “users’ search behavior” is very misleading, and no personal information was sought.

    3) Though the original request was large, by the time it became it court case, it was a very small amount of information.

    4) It really wasn’t “help police” either, except in a very attenuated sense of being related to a study to justify the law.

    See my long article on the Google Subpoena

    I do strongly agree the *issue* is very important. But the DOJ subpoena was not what so many people think it was.

    Reply
  2. Hi Seth – Yep, I read you. I must admit that this abstract was likely written before seeing your article earlier this year, and I haven’t had the time to finesse the language regarding the nature of the subpoena.

    Reply

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