Freshly back from vacation and other assorted adventures I was catching up on search stories and there are some head scratching items out there. What seems to be happening is that the role of search as a measure of intent is potentially getting criminalized. Here’s a couple of examples:
You are probably familiar with the Cannibal Cop trial which is currently happening in New York. It’s an incredibly creepy and weird story which surrounds either a bunch of fantasists or would be murdering psychopaths. My personal experience with the police is that it could easily be either (possibly both) but a good chunk of the police case centers around searches done by the accused. Leaving aside simple questions like “why didn’t he use an anonymous browser like Chrome Incognito” (oh no wait he’s a cop) the larger question is does the mere fact that someone is searching for something online can that search be used against them in a court of law. Do you in fact have a first amendment right to search for ways to kill and cook a woman. Taking that to it’s logical conclusion does searching for Silence of the Lambs on Amazon make you part of Hannibal Lectors fan club?….where do you draw the line?
There’s an interesting regulatory question which could also end in search based Jail for somebody. This tracks back to our good friends at the FDA. If there is any example of our tax dollars at work to a fault it’s the FDA. Whilst they are happy to allow meat processors to feed pink slime to our children they are fanatically keen to be sure that no herbal product ever make claims that it do more than gather dust on your bathroom shelf. The issue here is where herbal companies who are not allowed to make any claims for efficacy link their products with disease conditions with things like meta data on web pages which gets those products found for disease relates searches. Pretty much any medical related search will bring up unconventional solutions to the problem. The other use case they are bothered by is where on a companies own website a search for a disease term brings up product which the retailer would like to link to that disease but can not make legitimate disease claims for. I would have thought that anyone (even a cannibal cop) with a modicum of common sense would read the warnings and might figure out that the supplements which are coming up in the results aren’t FDA approved drugs….but you never know.
The billion dollar question this raises is can the FDA attempt to regulate search in that way. If they can where does it stop? Google was recently cleared of FTC violations are they going to be up before the FDA now for including herbal products in results sets for disease queries. Could merely doing the query “cure for cannibalism” get me hard time in the Big House….it’s OK I just did that query Incognito.