top_google_generic.jpgMOUNTAIN VIEW, California (Reuters) — Google Inc. said on Wednesday it is combining its different Web search services into one “Universal Search” service that will present Web sites, news, video and other results on one page.

The move, a significant overhaul of Google’s most-used function, will take effect on Wednesday and be improved over time, executives told reporters at the company’s “Googleplex” headquarters.

“I think of it as a pretty natural evolution, with the one interesting thing being the video side of it,” said Martin Pyykkonen, an analyst with Global Crown Capital.

“The thing everyone is wondering right now is what will an advertiser be willing to pay for a video link,” Pyykkonen said. “From the advertiser standpoint, I think they will be interested in how to hook their customer better.”

Universal Search means that standard Google searches will draw results from separate properties covering books, local information, images, news, and video, said Marissa Mayer, vice president of search and user experience.

“It’s breaking down the silos of information that have been built up. It’s a broad, long-term vision that will unfold over the next few years,” Mayer said. “We are really excited about what Universal Search could evolve to in the future.”

The combined search includes any site indexed by Google’s services. On the video side, for example, it will include YouTube, Google Video and independent sites like Metacafe.com.

Mayer did not directly discuss advertising plans, but she indicated the new service could open the door to more relevant ads on search result pages, which accounted for roughly half of the $10.6 billion in revenue Google did last year.

“For us, ads are (search) answers as well. I would hope that we can bring some of these same advances, in terms of richness of media, to ads,” Mayer said.

In addition, the company is introducing new navigation features at the top of every Google page that let users to quickly hop between its different properties.

For example, users of Google’s e-mail service, Gmail, can jump instantly to search, calendar, documents, and other services, according to a demonstration at the briefing.

The company also is preparing a translation service that converts queries into other languages, allowing a user to comb a broader swath of the Web, Google’s Vice President of Engineering, Udi Manber, said at the event.

The technique will translate queries in any of a dozen languages into English, find additional search results, then automatically translate those back into the language of the original query. This will give users in any supported language a broader view of information on the Web.

“That by itself will open the whole Web to different languages,” Manber said.

Copyright 2007 Reuters. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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top_spider-man_game.jpg(CNN) — With the video game version of “Spider-Man 3” and its theatrical counterpart hitting the United States on Friday, we’re not just seeing the continuation of a hugely successful movie franchise.

We’re seeing the continuation of a video game franchise that’s hugely successful in its own right.

“As popular as ‘Spider-Man’ is in the movie world, he’s as popular in the video game world,” says Bryan Intihar, Previews Editor for the video game magazine Electronic Gaming Monthly.

Activision’s video game versions of the last two “Spider-Man” movies have grossed a staggering $462 million in the United States, according to market research firm NPD.

That’s almost $100 million more than what the “Spider-Man 2” movie took in at the box office.

Usually, Intihar points out, you only see video game legends like “Grand Theft Auto” or “Halo” pulling those kinds of numbers.

The “Spider-Man” games have won commercial and critical kudos for their mostly faithful re-creations of the movies, and for a unique “open environment” that allows players to fight bad guys and swing through a dizzyingly accurate virtual recreation of Manhattan.

Activision’s Neven Dravinski also credits the cooperation his “Spider-Man 3” team received from the movie’s director, studio and stars (most of the film’s cast, including, Tobey McGuire, do voice work for the game).

Dravinski says early in the film’s production the gamemakers were able to see storyboards and initial special effects shots from some of the “Spider-Man 3” film’s more memorable action sequences, including Peter Parker’s nighttime aerial battle with the Green Goblin and Spider-Man’s subway confrontation with Sandman. (Watch “Spider-Man 3: The Game” merge movie, video game Video)

Both sequences are featured in the game.

“Thankfully,” Dravinski says, “we were able to see a lot of these sequences early and get a sense of what [the filmmakers] were doing.”

The new “Spider-Man 3” game includes enhanced powers and new combat moves for Spidey; a bigger and more lifelike rendering of Manhattan; and storylines that diverge from the movie, including Spidey’s battles against three elaborate street gangs that threaten to take over parts of New York (think “Spider-Man” meets “The Warriors”).

Sure, the “Spider-Man” games can never match the popular action shooters for edge-of-your seat, pulse-pounding thrills (Spidey’s gaming appeal has always been more “Wee!” than “Wow!”).

But their re-creations of some well-loved movies, and of one well-loved character, may be what set them apart.

Still bleary-eyed after having unveiled the game at “Spider-Man 3” movie premieres in London, England, and Japan, Activision’s Dravinski brightens at the memory of the reception the game got from fans. “At every premiere, I was the most popular guy because every kid, and every 40-year-old kid, would be like: ‘Oh, my God — Spider-Man!’ ”

It’s that kind of international enthusiasm that makes for successful video game franchises.

t1_relatives2_ap.jpg(CNN) — Searchers in Cameroon on Saturday were working to track down a missing Nairobi-bound Kenya Airways flight reported to have gone down in a forested area southwest of the Cameroonian capital of Yaounde.

African media reports say Kenya Airways Flight KQ 507 — which was carrying 115 crew and passengers — crashed near Yaounde.

One local government officer, Alex Bayeck, said villagers reported hearing a “large boom.”

“Searchers have gone out looking in this area,” including police, emergency workers and military police, he told The Associated Press. The region has few roads and is dotted by small villages.

There was no word yet on survivors, Bayeck said as he traveled to the crash site.

But Titus Naikuni, the company’s chief executive officer, refused to describe the incident as a crash. He told reporters that “at the moment you can’t make a clear statement until you see the aircraft itself.”

The plane took off from the Cameroonian city of Douala bound for Nairobi, Kenya and was scheduled to arrive in the Kenyan capital about 6 a.m., the airline said. There were reports of thunderstorms in the area around the time of takeoff overnight.

An airline official said the last message from the aircraft was an automatic distress signal received soon after takeoff from Douala airport. The plane was just six months old, the airline said.

People from 25 different countries were on aboard. They included one American, five Britons, one Swiss, one Swede, six Chinese, and 15 Indians. The remainder were Africans, including at least 35 from Cameroon and at least nine from Kenya, according to airline figures.

The Associated Press is reporting that Anthony Mitchell, a Nairobi-based AP correspondent, “was believed” to be on the flight.

Relatives waiting at Nairobi’s airport were distraught as news reports about the missing plane came in. Dozens of family members cried and collapsed in the airport terminal.

One person there said families there had received no information. “I cannot talk now because there is no news,” he told AP, declining to give his name. “We have not been given any information.”

Cameroon’s military sent helicopters from Douala airport to the believed crash site, AP reported.

Kenyans are sending a delegation to Cameroon, and Naikuni said the United States was helping authorities track the flight location. Naikuni said the location is about 100 kilometers, or more than 60 miles, southwest of Yaounde.

A Kenya Airways flight crashed seven years ago, on January 30, 2000, when a Nairobi-bound flight took off from Abidjan, Ivory Coast. The airline is considered one of the safest in Africa.

Copyright 2007 CNN. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Associated Press contributed to this report.

WASHINGTON (AP) — By providing free consulting and some software, Google is helping state governments make reams of public records that are now unavailable or hard to find online easily accessible to Web surfers.

The Internet search company hopes to eventually persuade federal agencies to employ the same tools — an effort that excites advocates of open government but worries some consumer-privacy experts.

Google plans to announce Monday that it has already partnered with four states — Arizona, California, Utah and Virginia — to remove technical barriers that had prevented its search engine, as well as those of Microsoft and Yahoo, from accessing tens of thousands of public records dealing with education, real estate, health care and the environment.

These newly available records will not be exclusive to the search engines owned by Google, Yahoo and Microsoft.

Patrice McDermott, director of OpenTheGovernment.org, a coalition of more than 65 watchdog groups that advocate greater government openness and accountability, lauded Google’s efforts. Since the September 11 attack on the United States, many public agencies have tried to restrict certain data from the Internet due to concerns about national security.

Despite the obvious benefits of this Google initiative for those conducting Web searches, privacy advocates said they are worried about unintended consequences, cautioning that some records may contain personal and confidential information that should not be widely available.

Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center, said many public health and financial records should not necessarily be widely available because they often contain citizens’ Social Security numbers. Such information should be redacted from records regardless of whether they’re viewed online or in person at a government office, he said.

Rotenberg also said Google has a “checkered past” on privacy, noting that the company tracks Internet search users who access government data in order to target ads at them. EPIC recently filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission urging it to investigate Google regarding such activities, as well as its proposed acquisition of online advertising company DoubleClick.

Officials from states partnering with Google are hopeful that the education and tools provided to them by the Mountain View, California-based company will make it easier for average citizens to navigate agency Web sites.

“Unless you had a master’s degree in government administration, you probably wouldn’t find the actual information you’re looking for,” said Chris Cummiskey, Arizona’s chief information officer.

J.L. Needham, who manages Google’s public-sector content partnerships, said at least 70 percent of visitors to government Web sites get there by using commercial search engines. But too often, he said, Web searches do not turn up the information people are looking for simply because government computer systems aren’t programmed in a way that allows commercial search engines to access their databases.

Still, if users can’t get the information they’re looking for, they blame the search engine, not the government, Needham lamented. The remedy, which Google has been working on with state technology officers for roughly six months, is to create virtual roadmaps by which search engines can find the databases that store public records.

“We have a vested interest in ensuring that the results we provide in every area, including government services, are high quality, authoritative and trustworthy,” he said. Google has had discussions with several federal agencies, including the departments of Education and Energy, about making their data easier to access, Needham said.

Not all government officials have responded favorably to Google’s effort, Needham said, sometimes because they assume Google is trying to sell them a new service.

California’s chief information officer, Clark Kelso, said he is concerned about the consumer-privacy issues raised by this initiative and he has directed all state agencies to redact Social Security numbers and other confidential information from documents that will now be available online.

Time Warner is the parent company for CNN.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

story_yahoo_ap.jpgNEW YORK (AP) — A human-rights group sued Yahoo Wednesday on grounds the U.S. search company assisted China’s communist government with torture by revealing information that led to the arrest of dissidents.

The World Organization for Human Rights USA is seeking unspecified damages and wants Yahoo to actively secure the release of any detainees.

The group said businesses that operate abroad need to be more aware of their responsibilities.

“They should not be participating actively in promoting and encouraging major human-rights abuses,” said Morton Sklar, executive director for the Washington, D.C.-based organization.

Yahoo has acknowledged turning over data on its users at the request of the Chinese government, saying company employees face civil and criminal sanctions if they ignore local laws.

Without commenting directly on the federal lawsuit the human-rights group filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, Yahoo spokesman Jim Cullinan said such a matter is “better suited for diplomacy than it is in the legal forum.”

He said that although company officials are “distressed that citizens in China have been imprisoned for expressing their political view on the Internet,” Yahoo plans to keep offering services in China out of a belief the Internet can promote change and transform lives in that country.

Dissidents reluctant to join complaint

The lawsuit cites federal laws that govern torture and other violations of international law. Plaintiffs included jailed dissident Wang Xiaoning and his wife, Yu Ling, who was visiting San Francisco this week as part of the group’s campaign.

Sklar said he knew of three other cases, but the dissidents were reluctant to join the complaint for fear of harm to their families living in China. Among those three dissidents is journalist Shi Tao, who was sentenced in 2005 to 10 years in jail.

Part of the lawsuit’s goal will be to determine how widespread Yahoo’s assistance was, Sklar said, “and to stop this practice of U.S. corporations being complicit.”

Yahoo rivals Microsoft and Google also have been accused of helping the Chinese government crush dissent in return for access to booming Internet markets, but only Yahoo has been accused of directly assisting in a dissident’s arrest.

Google has offered a censored version of its popular search engine, while Microsoft shut down, at Beijing’s request, a popular Chinese blog that touches on sensitive topics such as press freedoms.

Activists, meanwhile, have criticized Cisco Systems for selling computer-networking equipment that could potentially be used to monitor Internet use.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

top_computer_myspace.jpgINDIANAPOLIS, Indiana (AP) — A judge violated a juvenile’s free-speech rights when he placed her on probation for posting an expletive-laden entry on MySpace criticizing a school principal, the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled.

The three-judge panel on Monday ordered the Putnam Circuit Court to set aside its penalty against the girl, referred to only as A.B. in court records.

“While we have little regard for A.B.’s use of vulgar epithets, we conclude that her overall message constitutes political speech,” Judge Patricia Riley wrote in the 10-page opinion.

In February 2006, Greencastle Middle School Principal Shawn Gobert discovered a Web page on MySpace purportedly created by him. A.B., who did not create the page, made derogatory postings on it concerning the school’s policy on body piercings.

The state filed a delinquency petition in March alleging that A.B.’s acts would have been harassment, identity deception and identity theft if committed by an adult. The juvenile court dropped most of the charges but in June found A.B. to be a delinquent child and placed her on nine months of probation. The judge ruled the comments were obscene.

A.B. appealed, arguing that her comments were protected political speech under both the state and federal constitutions because they dealt with school policy.

The Court of Appeals found that the comments were protected and that the juvenile court had unconstitutionally restricted her right of free expression.

There was no number for Shawn Gobert in publishing phone listings. The Associated Press left a message seeking comment Monday at Greencastle Middle School.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

vert_ninthward_file_gi.gifNEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (AP) — Google’s replacement of post-Hurricane Katrina satellite imagery on its map portal with images of the region before the storm does a “great injustice” to the storm’s victims, a congressional subcommittee said.

The House Committee on Science and Technology’s subcommittee on investigations and oversight on Friday asked Google Inc. Chairman and CEO Eric Schmidt to explain why his company is using the outdated imagery.

The subcommittee cited an Associated Press report on the images.

“Google’s use of old imagery appears to be doing the victims of Hurricane Katrina a great injustice by airbrushing history,” subcommittee chairman Brad Miller, D-North Carolina, wrote in a letter to Schmidt.

Swapping the post-Katrina images and the ruin they revealed for others showing an idyllic city dumbfounded many locals and even sparked suspicions that the company and civic leaders were conspiring to portray the area’s recovery progressing better than it really is.

Andrew Kovacs, a Google spokesman, said the company had received the letter but Schmidt had no immediate response.

After Katrina, Google’s satellite images were in high demand among exiles and hurricane victims anxious to see whether their homes were damaged.

Now, though, a virtual trip through New Orleans via Google Maps is a surreal experience of scrolling across an unscathed landscape of packed parking lots and marinas full of boats.

Reality, of course, is very different: Entire neighborhoods are now slab mosaics where houses once stood and shopping malls, churches and marinas are empty of life, many gone altogether.

John Hanke, Google’s director for maps and satellite imagery, said “a combination of factors including imagery date, resolution, and clarity” go into deciding what imagery to provide.

“The latest update from one of our information providers substantially improved the imagery detail of the New Orleans area,” Hanke said in a news release about the switch.

Kovacs said efforts are under way to use more current imagery.

It was not clear when the current images replaced views of the city taken after Katrina struck August 29, 2005, flooding an estimated 80 percent of New Orleans.

Miller asked Google to brief his staff by April 6 on who made the decision to replace the imagery with pre-Katrina images, and to disclose if Google was contacted by the city, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Geological Survey or any other government entity about changing the imagery.

“To use older, pre-Katrina imagery when more recent images are available without some explanation as to why appears to be fundamentally dishonest,” Miller said.

Edith Holleman, staff counsel for the House subcommittee, said it would be useful to understand how Google acquires and manages its imagery because “people see Google and other Internet engines and it’s almost like the official word.”

Google does provide imagery of New Orleans and the region following Katrina through its more specialized service called Google Earth.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.