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Author: Deborah Lines Andersen
Title: Google as Information Policy Case Study
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
April 2006

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Source: Google as Information Policy Case Study
Deborah Lines Andersen

vol. 9, no. 1, April 2006
Article Type: Benchmark

Google as Information Policy Case Study

Deborah Lines Andersen

April 2006

Benchmark: a standard by which something can be measured or judged.  [1]

In their book, The Google Story, David A. Vise and Mark Malseed (New York: Delacorte Press, 2005) discuss the rise of an information technology giant.  The story is complete with biographies, road trip vignettes, financial figures, software development discussions, and even a recipe for buttermilk fried chicken that the Google chef has been know to serve to employees. One finds out the “Google” was the inadvertent misspelling of “Googol,” a term defining 10 to the 100th power, and that Larry Page and Sergey Brin started their billion dollar enterprise in a friend’s garage.

Along the way information professionals are treated to an array of stories that illustrate critical points in information policy discussions.  There is something for everyone.  Information ownership, information privacy, information access, international information policy, information economics, censorship and filtering all appear as critical policy issues both in the book and in almost daily U.S. newspaper articles that touch upon these issues and the giant of all search engines.

From the point of view of the historian, these are policy issues in the making.  Years from now historians will be studying Google—how it developed, grew or declined, and changed the way that human beings access information online, and think about accessing information in general. No matter what Google’s history turns out to be, it seems apparent that Brin and Page have had a permanent impact on information policy both in the United States and abroad.

If one were creating a class on information policy, and using Google as a case study, what would be the critical policy issues that could be tracked over time?  What are the stories that will affect the thinking of policy makers, technology specialists, regulators, and government officials both now and in the future? The following are some possibilities.

Case One: Children, Internet Filtering, and Google

Information policy gets complicated when it deals with the information rights of minor children.  Arguments abound about children’s rights versus parents’ rights versus the right of information to be free. While probably no one would argue that children should have rights to all information, especially sexually explicit or pornographic information, there are many shades of gray between open access and no access. Children can be denied access to adult books in the library, and be given access only to Internet terminals with filters. In a time of growing sophistication of information technologies it is possible to block websites although one does also risk blocking scientific or informational sites that happen to contain restricted vocabulary. Children in libraries and schools could be given access to web sites on unfiltered terminals only when an adult is present.  There are many ways to provide partial access depending upon the age of a child.

Enter the United States government and its Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 (COPA). The law, in particular, makes a case that sophisticated online technologies make it more critical than ever to protect children against inappropriate materials. Section 1402 states:

The Congress finds that—

(1) while custody, care, and nurture of the child resides first with the parent, the widespread availability of the Internet presents opportunities for minors to access materials through the World Wide Web in a manner that can frustrate parental supervision or control

(2) the protection of the physical and psychological well-being of minors by shielding them from materials that are harmful to them is a compelling governmental interest

(3) to date, while the industry has developed innovative ways to help parents and educators restrict material that is harmful to minors through parental control protections and self-regulation, such efforts have not provided a national solution to the problem of minors accessing harmful material on the World Wide Web;

(4) a prohibition on the distribution of material harmful to minors, combined with legitimate defenses, is currently the most effective and least restrictive means by which to satisfy the compelling government interest; and

(5) notwithstanding the existence of protections that limit the distribution over the World Wide Web of material that is harmful to minors, parents, educators, and industry must continue efforts to find ways to protect children from being exposed to harmful material found on the Internet.  [2]

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) challenged COPA in 1998, stating that it violates the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That amendment, Freedom of Religion, Press, and Expression, was ratified in December 15, 1791 and states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the ACLU, concluding that “the government has not shown that there are no less restrictive alternatives to COPA, and that there is a potential for extraordinary harm and a serious chill upon protected speech if the law goes into effect.”  [3]

In spring of 2006 the United States government requested that several Internet search engines, including Google, turn over records of searches so that the government could establish the percentage of pornographic searches in a given week, and potentially bolster its case for COPA. On February 27, 2006, the Associated Press released the following story:

Concerns by Google Inc. that a Bush administration demand to examine millions of its users' Internet search requests would violate privacy rights are unwarranted, the Justice Department said in a court filing.

The 18-page brief filed Friday argues that because the information provided would not identify or be traceable to specific users, privacy rights would not be violated.

The brief was the Justice Department's reply to strident arguments filed by Google last week as a rebuff the government's demand to review its search requests during a random week.

The department believes the information will help revive an online child protection law that has been blocked by the U.S. Supreme Court. By showing the wide variety of Web sites that people find through search engines, the government hopes to prove Internet filters are not strong enough to prevent children from viewing pornography and other inappropriate material online.  [4]

Vise and Malseed, in The Google Story, state, “One out of every four requests for information on Google and other Internet search engines involves pornography, according to a 2004 study by Family Safe Media, a watchdog group.  That statistic suggests that Google fields tens of millions of request for pornography daily” (p. 165). Although we do not know the methodology that Family Safe Media used, the numbers are still large enough to support the government’s contention that there is pornography on the web.  Will the federal government be able to use this information to require stronger Internet filters?

At this writing, the jury is literally still out on what will happen to filtering of the Internet, and to Google’s refusal to turn over its search records.  This is case one—a discussion of the possible futures for Google, Internet filtering, and government intervention into the contents of and access to the World Wide Web.

Case Two: Google Goes International

Google’s move to enter the Chinese market pits the concept of information access against that of government censorship.  Whereas Case One deals with children, Case Two deals with all citizens in a country that wishes to control the information that its inhabitants receive.  Google had two choices.  It could decide not to enter the Chinese market on matters of conscience—it would provide no information rather than information controlled by China’s government.  Or, Google could decide to enter the Chinese market, allow filtering, and gain access to an enormous portion of the world’s population and an exceedingly large customer base.  It chose the second.  On  January 25, 2006, the BBC news released a report on Google and China, which said, in part:

Leading internet company Google has said it will censor its search services in China in order to gain greater access to China's fast-growing market. Google has offered a Chinese-language version of its search engine for years but users have been frustrated by government blocks on the site. The company is setting up a new site - - which it will censor itself to satisfy the authorities in Beijing. Google argued it would be more damaging to pull out of China altogether. Critics warn the new version could restrict access to thousands of sensitive terms and web sites. Such topics are likely to include independence for Taiwan and the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. The Chinese government keeps a tight rein on the internet and what users can access. The BBC news site is inaccessible, while a search on for the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement directs users to a string of condemnatory articles. Google's move in China comes less than a week after it resisted efforts by the US Department of Justice to make it disclose data on what people were searching for.  [5]

Case Two pits information access against information control. It also begs the question of  the ethics of buying into a system by a company whose motto is “Don’t Be Evil.”

Case Three: Google Scholar and the Library

Google Scholar continues Google’s inroads into really interesting information organization and access.  [6] This site is a goldmine not only for the individual interested in doing research but also for library science types who are looking at how information is organized on the World Wide Web, and what information is available on particular topics.

In a November 2004 article in SearchEngineWatch, Danny Sullivan discussed the strengths and weaknesses of the Google product introduced that month.  In particular, he noted that Google Scholar has promised to have abstracts of all its scholarly materials available, even if the searcher needs a password or subscription to a particular site in order to be able to see the entire article.  [7] With complaints abounding about students who only use the Internet when finding materials for their papers, it is important to note that this new source will both allow them to do this more, and give them perhaps more scholarly articles to work with than those of dubious authorship or ideologic leanings that often make it to undergraduate bibliographies.

By March 2006 Laura Bowering Mullen and Karen A. Hartman had published a study of Google Scholar and how it was being displayed by Association of Research Libraries libraries eight months after its release. In particular, the authors were interested in how the new service was integrated onto the web sites of 113 libraries in the study. The article ends with a series of inplications for students, scholars/researchers, and librarians that are well worth reading.  [8]

What does happen in a Google Scholar search?  To answer this question this writer did a search of known materials, namely her own, to see what would surface on Scholar pages.  Typing in “Deborah Lines Andersen” produced 31 citations that were then linked to an enormous array of other web links.  The results were confusing, to say the least, for a neophyte in the world of Google Scholar. For example, the following was the second item retrieved by the search:

Collecting and analyzing qualitative data for system dynamics: methods and models - group of 3 » LF Luna-Reyes, DL Andersen - System Dynamics Review, 2003 - ... Luis Felipe Luna-Reyes* and Deborah Lines Andersen Abstract System dynamics depends heavily upon quantitative data to generate feedback models. ...Cited by 4 - Web Search - BL Direct

In order, this is what happened upon selecting each link.

Title (Collecting and analyzing…) brings one to a Wiley Interscience web site that indicates the year, volume, number and pages of the article from the System Dynamics Review.  There is also an abstract for the article, as promised by Google Scholar, but no access unless one is a subscriber.

Group of 3 is still within the Google Scholar site and lists three sites that contain the paper or portions thereof, with more links.  The first is the Interscience site, again.  The second lands at the Universidad de las Américas Puebla, but is a dead link (“no se encontró la página.”) to the academic home of the paper’s first author, Luis Luna.  The third links to a draft pdf version of the paper posted on the University at Albany website by Luna.  This last is a full draft rather than just abstract.  With some work one can find full text.

Cited by 4 links to four articles or theses than reference this paper. All four are available full text.

Web search shifts the user from Google Scholar to Google and displays 13 (although the site says 28) links to the paper or proceedings that had an earlier draft of the paper, or non-English, especially Spanish, language libraries that have table of contents pages listed, or some links that are no longer live.

BL Direct takes the user to British Libraries Direct, “a new service that allows you to search across 20,000 journals for free and order full text using your credit card.” There are complete article details that would be of great help to anyone search for the original, peer-reviewed article, and pricing information:

“To buy the full text of this article you pay: £17.00 copyright fee + service charge (from £7.45) + VAT, if applicable.”

By way of completeness, it should be noted that links under other citations for monographs direct the user to “Library Search” which yields the World Cat site and its ability to find a copy of a book at a particular library.

Google Scholar has announced that it is interested in collecting and collating various versions of scholarly pieces for study and review.  [9] In this case this writer found 1) a draft version, 2) a proceedings version, 3) an abstract and 4) a peer-reviewed journal article for the same piece as well as various citations to the work, library listings, and purchase information.

Google Scholar as a Teaching Tool

As a case study, Google Scholar provides a wealth of information, although this author could not readily parse it, even though it was about her own writing and she has training as a librarian. In a library science class one might assign students the task of finding all possible versions of a single piece of scholarly work. In a history course, students might be assigned a particular scholar, period, or figure and the job of ascertaining what is “out there” as opposed to a standard library catalog/subject database search. It would probably not do well as a citation study for individuals who are coming up for tenure and promotion since it is not clear how complete the findings would be, although there are listings for monograph reviews that could be quoted. For the librarian on the desk it does create a single point of reference for article searches, especially if one is blocked from the costly version and can find a draft available full text. From a purely narcissistic perspective it is amazing to see how many different ways Google Scholar might list one’s work. Pedagogically, it is a marvel that could provide hours of research possibilities for students who are interested in how information is arranged on the Internet and how various versions of a work are changed to create the next.


1. “Benchmark,” American Heritage Dictionary, 4th ed., 2000.

2. See the full text of the Children’s Online Protection Act at

3. A digest of the legal arguments surrounding COPA is found at

4. “Justice Dept. rejects Google's concerns,”Ventura County,Feb. 25, 2006.

5. “Google censors itself for China.” BBC News at January 25, 2006.

6. See

7. Danny Sullivan. 2004. “Google Scholar Offers Access To Academic Information.” November 18.

8. Laura Bowering Mullen and Karen A. Hartman. 2006. “Google Scholar and the Library Web Site: The Early Response by ARL Libraries.” College & Research Libraries 67 (2):106-122.

9. Mullen and Hartman state, “Librarians can see the value of displaying at once all possible versions of an author’s work, including preprints, postprints, self-archived journal articles, conference presentations, and technical reports” (p. 107).