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Letters

Vol. 28 No. 3 · 9 February 2006

Search by issue:

Google: An Update

Since the last issue went to press with my piece on Google in it (LRB, 26 January) there have been a couple of big stories about the company. The second piece of news was the less surprising: it was the announcement that Google is to start a search service in China, with servers based locally, and that it will co-operate with Chinese government censorship in the process. This means that it will block access to websites that the Chinese government doesn’t want people to see. (At the moment, Chinese users of Google have to access servers in the US; the search results which are produced then have to pass through Chinese government internet servers before they get back to the user, and are censored in the process. This is waggishly known as the Great Firewall of China.) This development was dispiriting but not surprising, since Google has been co-operating with Chinese censorship of its news service since 2004. Also, Google owns part of Baidu, the biggest Chinese search engine, known for its energetic co-operation with the censors. There was no possibility that Google would pass up the opportunity to grow in China, merely for the sake of living up to its own ideals.

Still, the news about China has the potential to damage perceptions about the trustworthiness of Google, at a time when they are at issue. That is in part thanks to the other big news story about Google: that the company has, since August last year, been fighting a subpoena from the US Department of Justice. The DoJ had demanded a list of every website address available on Google, and every search term entered into Google, for June and July 2005 – a request later narrowed to a random list of a million websites, and all the URLs available in a given week. The US government was looking to assess the prevalence on the internet of what it grotesquely calls ‘HTM’: this acronym, of which we haven’t heard the last, means ‘Harmful to Minors’, and it means not child pornography but pornography that children can accidentally access over the internet. The US government passed a law in 1998 on how this material should be blocked; in 2004 the Supreme Court overturned the law on the basis that a system of filters should be used instead; this subpoena was part of an attempt to show that the filters don’t work.

It turned out that AOL, Microsoft and Yahoo! had all already complied with similar requests. To many, this seemed the long-predicted privacy apocalypse. It isn’t, not quite, since the subpoena specifically omits information that would identify who is doing the searching. But it is a genuinely worrying sign, not least because it shows the way governments might come to use search engines as a form of privatised surveillance. In the post-Google world, the risk is that governments won’t need to spy on us themselves: they can let the search engines gather the data, and then hoover up the information with a subpoena. As a spokesman for the Department of Justice blithely said last week, ‘I’m assuming that if something raised alarms, we would hand it over to the proper [authorities].’ So good on Google for fighting the subpoena, even if – as geeks suspect – they did so more to protect trade secrets and their share price than because of a commitment not to be evil. The news about the subpoena caused Google’s share price to drop 8.5 per cent in one day, and the company is now worth 20 billion dollars less than it was when I wrote the piece. This is the stock market’s way of saying that the more people think about their privacy, the worse news it is for Google.

‘Our company relies on us having the trust of our users,’ Larry Page has said. True. ‘We should have laws that protect the privacy of data … from government requests and other kinds of requests.’ Those laws, obviously, aren’t going to be passed. The only people who can protect users from such requests are the search engines themselves, and the only way they can do it is by deliberately not retaining personal data. Maybe, just maybe, Google will realise it has to protect users’ privacy in order to protect its own share price. The alternative is a future that would have given Big Brother himself wet dreams.

John Lanchester
London SW4

So Google is a (mis-spelled) number? And there was I thinking it was ‘go ogle’.

Nicholas Cocks
Singapore

Garlic or Onion

In his review of Benjamin Kunkel’s Indecision, Daniel Soar writes of the protagonist: ‘He always gets an “everything bagel" to spare himself the trauma of having to choose between fillings’ (LRB, 5 January). That designation refers not to the ‘filling’ of the bagel but to its outside, its sprinkling of poppy seeds or sesame seeds, garlic or onion.

As for David Runciman’s piece on José Mourinho in the same issue, it is marred only by his misconception about the Hot Hand, which has nothing to do with the three-point shot, as he asserts. Rather, it describes a player having an unexpected run of success sticking jumpers of any length, including but not limited to long-range shots.

Randy Cohen
New York

Homosociality

Edward Luttwak scolds J.E. Lendon for neglecting hard archaeological evidence, but opens his review with generalisations so contrived he deserves some scolding of his own (LRB, 17 November 2005). His thesis, compliments of Martin van Creveld, is that ‘men love war and women love warriors’: men wouldn’t put up with the hardship unless they loved war; they’d have found other things to do if it didn’t make them especially attractive; and women must love warriors because, well, here we all are, despite once ravaged populations.

But suppose for a moment that antagonism towards an enemy is, at least in part, an alibi for intensified bonds among friends. Given that it is men, overwhelmingly, who fight, both the positive and negative valencies are homosocial, if not actively homoerotic. There is a growing literature on homosociality and it includes several treatments of war. Both Lendon and Luttwak ignore this material; Lendon in his treatment of a period that is otherwise noted for its homosexual regimes. The dynamic is not confined to war, which is why one occasionally sees it in the little deaths of book reviewing. Luttwak’s specimen is a case in point. What neither Luttwak nor Lendon notices is the very thing they share: a preoccupation with men whose antagonism may be the sign of a very different but equally intimate bond.

Jonathan Carter
University of Melbourne

Lachrymatories

Steven Shapin writes that gas was banned as a weapon of war by the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 (LRB, 26 January). This isn’t quite correct. There was no specific ban on non-lethal irritants such as tear gas, and the prohibition concerned itself with ballistic means of delivery. This left the way open for Fritz Haber to use chlorine that wasn’t released from exploding shells but simply blown downwind from cylinders on the ground. All the European belligerents in the First World War were Hague signatories, but this did not stop prewar experiments with lachrymatory chemicals by Britain and Germany, and the French were the first to use them on the battlefield. Chlorine is less immediate in its effect than some lachrymatories, making it more lethal if soldiers are enveloped unawares by a cloud of the gas. J.B.S. Haldane drew a distinction between ‘lachrymatory gas, the most humane weapon ever invented’, and chlorine discharged in this way, which he considered ‘an exceedingly cruel practice’. The alacrity with which both sides tried out increasingly unpleasant chemicals and methods of delivery on one another as the war progressed shows that gas, whatever its composition, was a weapon whose time had come.

Hugh Aldersey-Williams
Aylsham, Norfolk

It wasn’t the CIA

Roderick MacFarquhar distorts my argument (Letters, 26 January). I did not imply that the CIA called the shots on the China Quarterly or directed the affairs of the journal. My point was not just about Karl Wittfogel, but also about George Taylor and others who remained central to the field of contemporary China studies in spite of their vicious McCarthyite attacks on other scholars. The Ford Foundation provided funds through the Social Science Research Council for a committee to develop scholarship on contemporary China. John King Fairbank of Harvard and other major figures joined Taylor on this committee, and after the China Quarterly’s debut, Taylor and Wittfogel were back in the establishment fold. True, the journal’s inaugural debate was more about Wittfogel’s ideas than his book, but a debate about Owen Lattimore’s far superior scholarship would have made for an interesting and courageous alternative.

What I wrote merely hinted at an important and complicated political shift in studies of China, still dimly understood. MacFarquhar would be more convincing if, as one might have expected of a journal editor left in the dark about CIA funding, he had ever published an examination of the CIA’s involvement with the journal, or expressed concern about the centrality of CIA ties to many major figures in this field, or considered the many books on China secretly subvened by the CIA. To the best of my knowledge he has not.

Bruce Cumings
University of Chicago

Like Alan Bennett …

Alan Bennett proposes a principled approach to the eradication of mice whereby they are offered a choice of humane rendition or kindly being put to sleep by poison (LRB, 5 January). Julian Rathbone (Letters, 26 January) describes his persistence with humane rendition but ultimately used targeted execution to despatch a resurgent mouse, thereby possibly changing the course of mouse evolution. There is a third way, free of anthropocentric concerns.

My humane traps failed in the same way as Julian Rathbone’s and I then resorted to poison. The problem with poison is that although you know the pile has been nibbled it is rare to find any carcasses; some may fester unhygienically, others may be eaten by third parties which in turn are poisoned. In my case one fell asleep in the base of a washing-machine downpipe, causing a flood. Hence I deployed a battery of Little Nippers. The main advantage of the Nipper is you know you have caught your mouse, and any doubts about the humaneness of the despatch can be offset by the thought that it is analogous to the experience of efficient execution by guillotine or axe – a moment of excruciating pain followed by nothingness. Moreover, I baited my Nippers with the tastiest cheddar cheese from the Co-op’s delicatessen counter.

Nevertheless I remained troubled by the ethics of my strategy and decided to purchase and install a barn owl box. It is natural for a barn owl to catch eight or more mice a day – the ultimate weapon of mouse destruction.

Adrian Glossop
London W12

How do we do it?

My enjoyment of the LRB is lessened by my annoyance at some of the word-breaks. Whatever the system employed, it drastically needs improving. The following are a few, really appalling examples:

put-ative
pot-entially
Victor-ians
sold-iers
meticul-ously
univers-ity

As so many editorial staff are listed on page 2, surely someone could be found to check these before finalisation of the pages?

John Leath
Sandown, Isle of Wight

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