April 2007

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.

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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.

t1_bush_ahmadinejad_ap_g.jpgCAMP DAVID, Maryland (CNN) — President Bush on Saturday called Iran’s detention of 15 British sailors and marines “inexcusable behavior” and called for their release, referring to them as “hostages.”

“The Iranians took these people out of Iraqi water,” said Bush, speaking at Camp David with Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. “And it’s inexcusable behavior.”

The 15 have been detained in an undisclosed location in Iran since March 23. Iran claims they “trespassed” into Iranian territorial waters. Britain denies the claim.

The U.S. government had been notably quiet on the subject from the beginning, but Bush voiced strong opinions Saturday.

“The Iranians must give back the hostages,” he said. “They were innocent. They were doing nothing wrong. And they were summarily plucked out of water.”

Lula da Silva did not address the British issue, but said Brazil has no political issues with Iran and considers Tehran an important trading partner.

Also Saturday, an Iranian official said his country had started a legal process to determine the guilt or innocence of the detainees.

If they are not guilty, they will be freed, said Ambassador Gholam-Reza Ansari, who is in Russia.

“But the legal process is going on and has to be completed, and if they are found guilty, they will face the punishment,” he said on Russian TV. (Watch Iranian ambassador call British sailors ‘invaders’ Video)

Ansari — speaking to the TV news channel Vesti-24 — also hinted that there could be a diplomatic settlement, according to the Islamic Republic News Agency in Iran.

“If the UK government admits its mistake and apologizes to Iran for its naval personnel’s trespassing of Iranian territorial waters, the issue can be easily settled.”

Iran’s president called Britain “arrogant” Saturday for not apologizing, media in Iran reported.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — in remarks carried by state radio and reported by the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency — said, “The occupying British forces entered our waters, and our border guards, with courage and alertness, arrested them.”

Instead of issuing any regret or displaying any shame, Britain postured, he said, issuing declarations and making speeches.

“These arrogants, due to their arrogant mentality and selfishness, instead of apologizing, they acted as if we owe them,” he said.

Ahmadinejad also took a wider swipe at Britain and other Western nations.

“In the last 300 years, the arrogant powers have been stealing from other nations. They have enslaved the people of other nations,” he said.

He said that after World War II, the Western countries “declared themselves the winners and created international organizations in order to continue their domination over the rest of the world.”

“The arrogant powers unfortunately today are openly breaking the laws that those international organizations they themselves founded and created,” Ahmadinejad said, according to IRNA.

British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said Saturday that Britain has written to Iran to seek a peaceful resolution to the standoff.

“We have made our response, and now we are beginning to discuss. As you may know, it’s a holiday period in Iran, and that is perhaps not too helpful,” said Beckett, speaking to reporters at the European Union foreign ministers’ meeting in Germany.

The contents of the diplomatic notes passed between the two countries have not been disclosed.

“The message I want to send is that everyone regrets that this position has arisen. What we want is a way out of it, we want it peacefully, and we want it as soon as possible. We would like to be told where our personnel are; we would like to be given access to them,” Beckett said.

The 15 British sailors and marines have been detained in an undisclosed location in Iran since March 23. (Watch brother and friends tell of fears for sailor Video)

EU officials meeting in Germany — already dealing with the conflict over Iran’s nuclear aspirations — said they wanted to resolve the crisis.

“Of course, we’re standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the United Kingdom,” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told reporters.

Steinmeier said ministers had given EU security and foreign affairs chief Javier Solana a brief to use his office to help secure the release of the sailors.

Third letter released

On Friday, Iran released a third letter purportedly written by detained British sailor Faye Turney, in which she claimed to have been “sacrificed” by British and U.S. policies and urged both countries to withdraw their troops from Iraq. (Full story)

The letter, the authenticity of which CNN cannot independently determine, followed two previous letters said to be written by Turney and released separately this week. (Watch Turney say what happened when she was captured Video)

Friday’s letter was released just hours after Turney appeared with two other Britons in new video aired by Arabic language network Al Alam. (Text of letters)

In the video, one of the 15 detained service personnel held in Iran confessed to “entering your waters without permission.”

“On the 23rd of March 2007 in Iranian waters we trespassed without permission,” said Nathan Thomas Summers. The third detainee in the video has not been identified. (Watch detained British sailor make his ‘confession’ Video)

Summers said the Britons were being treated well, as did the Turney letter.