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Search Engines Are At the Center Of Privacy Debate

At the center of the square off over the access to private personal data online -- a much publicized debate that extends from Beijing to Washington -- stands an uncertain arbiter: the search engine.

The companies that operate the most popular search engines -- Google, Yahoo and Microsoft -- are making decisions about how the information they collect about user behavior should be protected, in some cases from the eyes of governments that want to take a closer look but lack a clear legal right to do so.

"Search engines are the future of [that] debate," says Timothy Wu, a Columbia Law School professor specializing in telecommunications law, copyright, and international trade. "Questions about policy ultimately are going to be handled by search engines -- whether we live in a more or less government-controlled country."

As the collection and storage of data becomes an industry of its own, the availability of the information "is a temptation for the government," says Sherwin Siy, staff counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a nonprofit public interest group. He, Wu and others spoke Tuesday in a panel discussion at the Search Engine Strategies conference in New York City.

And when governments -- not just in the United States, but around the world -- want information about their citizens, "Search engines are first places they go," says Wu, who is also the co-author of a new book, "Who Controls the Internet."

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