Google fights data demand of US Government

Out-Law News | 23 Jan 2006 | 5:04 pm | 2 min. read

Google last week refused a demand for search records from the Justice Department. The Bush Administration wants these as evidence in a dispute over the constitutionality of an Act that aims to protect children from viewing internet porn.

Google has refused to comply with a subpoena, first served in the summer, that seeks the text of each search string entered into Google's search engine over a one-week period, absent any information identifying the people who entered the search terms. It also seeks a random sampling of one million URLs from Google's database of websites.

Google argues that compliance would breach the privacy rights of its users. On Wednesday, the Justice Department filed a motion with a San Jose court, seeking to enforce the subpoena.

The dispute relates to a suit brought in 1999 by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), on-line publishers and others over the controversial Child Online Protection Act.

Passed in 1998, the law known as COPA creates a crime of knowingly placing on-line for commercial purposes any material that is "available to" and deemed harmful to minors.

Violation carries a fine of up to $50,000 and six months in prison, although there is a defence if the web site operator restricts access to minors by requiring use of a credit card or other means of age verification.

According to the ACLU, however, the law is unconstitutional because it bans material that is legal for viewing by adults.

In June 2004 the US Supreme Court upheld an injunction against the enforcement of the Act, but then sent the case back to a district court, for a decision on whether advances in technology – such as filtering software – have now provided less restrictive means for the online protection of children than the draconian measures detailed in the Act.

The Justice Department is therefore seeking evidence to show that COPA is more effective in protecting minors than the new technology. To this end it has subpoenaed records from the four major search engines – Google, Yahoo!, MSN and AOL. Analysis of these records should show how often internet users encounter internet porn, and whether this can be blocked by filters.

According to reports, Google is the only firm not to comply with the request, citing its concern for user privacy.

In addition, Google points to the unreasonable burden that compliance would place on Google, the proprietary nature of its query database and the fact that many of the randomly selected search queries would contain personal information about Google users.

Nicole Wong, Google’s associate general counsel, said: "Google is not a party to this lawsuit and their demand for information overreaches. We had lengthy discussions with them to try to resolve this, but were not able to and we intend to resist their motion vigorously. "

Privacy groups have welcomed Google’s stand.

"This is exactly the kind of thing we have been worrying about with search engines for some time. Google should be commended for fighting this," Pam Dixon, Executive Director of the World Privacy Forum told the Associated Press.

Kurt Opsahl, Staff Attorney for rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) commented, "The government is overreaching here, asking Google to do its dirty work and collect information about the internet speech activities of Google users".

But the EFF also highlighted concerns over Google’s retention of data, stressing the fact that Google logs all of the searches you make, and most if not all of those queries are personally identifiable via cookies, IP addresses, and Google account information.

"The only way Google can reasonably protect the privacy of its users from such legal demands now and in the future is to stop collecting so much information about its users, delete information that it does collect as soon as possible, and take real steps to minimise how much of the information it collects is traceable back to individual Google users," said EFF Staff Attorney Kevin Bankston.

"If Google continues to gather and keep so much information about its users, government and private attorneys will continue to try and get it," he added.