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Turned Off

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When I read that the federal government might close eight local post offices I thought: Do we still need rural free delivery? Who needs snail mail these days more than once a week? It seems the last time I needed mail service was back in the 1990s. As a business reporter I needed annual reports. To get one you called someone and then wait two days for it to arrive in the mail. Now I get what I need online, including my paycheck. We once depended on the mail through rain, snow, sleet and hail. Now we have the Internet. But can we count on the digital mailman?

For the Thursday Night Talk show on KHSU last month I planned to speak to guests about prison realignment in California -- the shifting of felons convicted of non-violent crimes from state prisons to local jails. I wanted data on jail capacity. I Googled it on a specialized Google search engine called Uncle Sam that searches all federal, state and local government databases. For years it has been a kind of secret search engine. Google didn't list it with Shopping, or Images, Scholar or Books or any of the myriad specialized engines it offers. Which was always weird, because Google Uncle Sam was great. Combined with the Google's advance search function, which appears after any initial Google search, you can search government databases for Powerpoints, Excel spreadsheets and PDFs.

This time it just bounced me back to the main Google page and kept doing so, even after I yelled at it. So I Googled my problem to the web of people-who-spend-too-much-time-online-solving-Internet-problems-for-strangers.  I wrote in the search box: Where can I find Google Uncle Sam? The answer came back. I can't.

Google took it down back in June. The one search engine that filters out useless corporate, fluffy material and gives you back only info the government has collected. Now why would Google do that?

There was no announcement. Apparently Google argues that its main search engine is now so sophisticated, you don't need the specialized one. I don't even know if that's true. I got it from a posting by someone as peeved as I. Funny, because Google hasn't taken down the engines for finance, shopping, products, or videos. I guess if I wanted to shop for government data that would be a different story.

I worry about the power Google has amassed. If information is power, Google is like Megatron. I only know the name because I Googled "evil characters from Transformers."

One of my most frightening reading moments was in the middle of The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. In the book, a reactionary force took over the United States. The new government stripped all women of property and froze their bank accounts. The main character found out when she tried to buy something and her debit card didn't work. They had shut down the digital financial network.  I haven't read the book in 25 years, but I was able to pull it up on Google Books to double check my memory.

Information is currency. I don't fear government control of information, but I do fear government/corporate collaborative control. Why shut down a search engine that helped citizens search their own government's databases for publicly available information?

Frequently the Internet goes down out here. Do we panic? No. We know that in one or two or nine hours it will come back online. What if it didn't? Or what if only part of it came back online -- the ability to shop, but not learn. Stuff related to entertainment but not politics or the environment or education.

I taught an online only class this summer. Two international students at Humboldt State University enrolled while back with their families in China. They had to find ways around the government-controlled Internet there. They couldn't see the YouTube videos I assigned, for example. Try Googling Falun Gong or Tiananmen Square in China and you won't get the same results you get here. One student gave up.

Information is power, and I fear the ability of one company or one person to turn that power off with a flick of a switch.

To begin this story with post office deliveries I looked up past articles in the Times-Standard archives. The site told me I'd have to pay $1.99 a month even though I'm a subscriber. Now I know that if you kill your computer's "cookies" you can get around that. Still, it is more difficult now to get important local information than it was a month ago, or more difficult if you aren't willing to pay up. Or lack the money to do so.  Or aren't savvy enough to know how. Hell, Media News might decide one of these days that the Times-Standard isn't worth the cost of publishing it and we will lose it altogether.

In August, some official in the Bay Area Rapid Transit system decided to turn off a cell tower and temporarily disable cell phone communications in an attempt to prevent a feared protest over a recent officer-involved shooting. I wanted to connect that story to the post office closures so I Googled BART and cell phones. I found 16 different stories in Google News, but none from publications in the Bay Area. Funny, I thought, I'm sure the SF Chronicle and Oakland Tribune must have covered it to death. Sure enough, on SF Gate, the Chron's site, I found story after story. There still is a website for the Oakland Tribune, even though the Media News Corp. decided to fold the historic publication into the new East Bay Tribune. But at first the only search box I could find on the site was for products and entertainment. They had tucked the archive search under the help menu.

How much of what you get online now for free will cost you next year? How much that is easily available now will disappear next year? How much will simply be difficult to find and available only for those who know how to work their way through a tangled web? I make students go to microfiche to look up old publications, and find actual copies in bound volumes because I want them to know how to do that. They think you can get any information worth getting through a box on a search engine. But someone can change the algorithms that determine what information search engines find. Websites can disappear. Connections can get so slow you give up.

We've had rural free delivery in this country since the turn of last century. I learned that on Wikipedia. It has taken more than a century to get us to the point where we aren't dependent on the U.S. Postal Service any more for our information. Could we get not so dependent on the privatized Internet? All I know is that when it rains or snows or sleets or hails, I have to wait to get my Gmail. The Internet invariably goes down.

Marcy Burstiner is an associate professor of journalism and mass communication at Humboldt State University. If your Internet is working you can shoot her an email at marcy.burstiner@humboldt.edu. Or you can Google her and find some old stuff and bad photos of her she would rather you not see.

 

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