DuckDuckGo, your private search engine

My internet searches are pretty uninteresting by just about any standard. So, in a sense, I shouldn’t care that search engines like Google, Yahoo! and Bing track my search queries. Similarly, many of the letters that I send are pretty innocuous, so I shouldn’t care if the envelope doesn’t get sealed before it goes out. (I’m not talking about client or client-related correspondence in this instance. I’m talking about cover letters that accompany court filings or personal correspondence.)

But I do care if the envelope doesn’t get sealed. It’s the principle of the thing. I prefer privacy in various contexts: in the home, in public restrooms, in the car, in my luggage, etc.

The leading search engines have done a pretty good job of keeping us from considering the fact that our search queries are tracked and tied to us. The only ones who really talk about it are the privacy-obsessed. Those of us who are slightly less than privacy-obsessed read what the privacy-obsessed are saying, think about it, and then get distracted by a ringing phone or an email that has just arrived.

But the principle of the private search makes sense to me. I’d be bothered if I had to write down in a log at the public library my name and what my search query is before using the library’s card catalog (which is now, of course, online). I don’t care if someone finds out I’m looking for books on astronomy or architecture. But it’s the principle: what people are looking for in a public library is nobody’s business.

After this year’s ABA TechShow, I heard about a new search engine, DuckDuckGo. It does not track your search history, and it does a remarkable job of finding useful information. Not only does DuckDuckGo have its own web crawler and search algorithm, but it queries Google, Yahoo!, Bing, and Wikipedia as well. Those results turn up in my search results as well.

I’ve been using DuckDuckGo for a day now, and I’m sold. I’ve installed the Safari extension that makes it my default search engine, and I’m loving it. Sure, the fact that I just searched for information on “Duck Duck Goose” is not embarrassing, but neither is it anyone’s business—not even Google’s.

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Puzzling lawyer behavior

As I try to do on a weekly basis, I was browsing around on LinkedIn this morning when something caught my eye. While reviewing the list of “people I might know,” I saw an attorney with the name Susanna H.

Just Susanna H.

This particular attorney works for a law firm, and yet she has apparently chosen to not reveal her last name to people using LinkedIn.

Now most lawyers use LinkedIn as a way to make electronic connections with people they know. Lawyers who want to get a bit more out of LinkedIn tailor their profiles to help people find them. This can be done by using key words in the profile to describe the services the lawyer provides.

Either way, part of the usefulness of LinkedIn is its ability to let people find you by searching. I think, however, Susanna H. is going to have a harder time being found by someone looking for her. How many people will wade through tens of pages to find her out of all the Susannas on LinkedIn? In fairness, perhaps Susanna is not worried about people searching for her by name, and she hopes she will show up in search results when people are looking for a lawyer in her field of practice.

I still see something wrong with this thinking. How many of us would hire a professional who doesn’t reveal his or her last name? Even Dr. Phil lets people know his last name, even if he doesn’t use it in the title of his show. Consider this: would you hire a lawyer whose phone book entry read “William W”? I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t hire a physician whose phone book entry was “Robert C” either.

Many people online are concerned about privacy, and they probably feel that not disclosing their last names on LinkedIn is a way to protect their privacy. This may be true, but the practice defeats the purpose of the web site’s service. There are plenty of sites where privacy is a major concern (Facebook, anyone?), but a directory of professionals and business colleagues probably isn’t one of them.

Lawyers and Foursquare: ethical problems?

Foursquare is one of the many social networking ideas online today. I’ve never used it, but from what I gather, with Foursquare you can “check in” at various venues like restaurants, stores, movie theaters, and the like. As a person checks in more often at a single place, that person can earn titles. I think if you are the person who checks in the most at a certain locale, you win the title “mayor.” (This particular “game” has little appeal for me. I don’t need all my friends knowing that I’ve just arrived at the local burger joint.)

Foursquare’s business model obviously counts on business locations to play along. Foursquare encourages businesses to offer incentives for people to check in. For most business owners, this is a good plan: if my customers know that they’ll get a free large espresso when they get to X number of check-ins, those customers will come back to my coffee shop more often. It’s simply a variation on the punch cards that many restaurants offer to regular customers: a classic customer rewards program.

What does this have to do with lawyers? It appears that some law offices have decided to join the Foursquare world. Clients can check in on their smart phones while waiting for their appointment. People apparently love to check in on Foursquare as a way of competing with their friends, and law firms appear to be cool and current with the latest trends. Sounds great, right?

I’m not so sure. While digging around on Foursquare’s web site, I found that one client of our firm apparently checked in (even though our firm has not registered as an official Foursquare participant). I realized that it might be wise for our firm to “claim” our business on Foursquare before someone else does, so I went through the process, and Foursquare sent a static cling window label we can use to advertise the fact that our firm is participating on Foursquare.

At no time did I seriously consider putting the label on our front door, but that idea made me think of something. By encouraging our clients to check in on Foursquare or any of the similar social networks, are we getting too close to the line of breaching a client’s confidence? Some clients or potential clients may not want anyone to know that they have visited a lawyer’s office. A person seeking a consultation about a possible divorce fits into this category nicely. Of course, one would hope that a person in that type of situation would know not to check in on Foursquare. The possibility that a person might do so without thinking through the idea is what concerns me. I would guess that some people are so into Foursquare that they semi-automatically check in whenever they see the window decal. People tend not to think when they are doing something out of habit. As an example, we had one close call where a client almost had her credit card receipt mailed to her house after a divorce consultation. That caused us to change our forms and ask if the client wants the receipt mailed elsewhere.

These concerns have led me to the conclusion that our firm will not be an active participant on Foursquare. We’ve claimed our business, but that’s as far as we’re going. If clients are waiting and just happen to check in on their own, that’s fine. We’re not going to encourage the practice, however.