Thursday, January 19, 2006

The Bush administration demanded in court documents this week that Google Inc. turn over information about its users’ Internet search requests.

Google has refused to comply with a Justice Department subpoena filed last year, which the agency hopes to use to resurrect the 1998 Child Online Protection Act (COPA), which the Supreme Court struck down in 2004.

The subpoena requested that Google provide a random sample of 1 million Web addresses and “the text of each search string entered into Google’s search engine over a one-week period (absent any information identifying the person who entered such query),” according to the motion filed Wednesday in San Jose, Calif., by Justice Department lawyers.

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

Nearly half of all U.S. Web searches are done via Google, followed by Sunnyvale, Calif., company Yahoo Inc. at 23 percent, MSN (Microsoft Network) at 11 percent, and America Online Inc. at 7 percent, according to November figures from Nielsen/NetRatings.

The Supreme Court ruled against COPA, which Congress enacted to protect children from sexually explicit material on the Internet, two years ago on free-speech grounds raised by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other groups. The high court sent it back to federal court in Pennsylvania.

The government contends that it needs the search-engine data to help prove the act’s constitutionality and that it would be more effective than filtering software in protecting minors from Internet pornography and other harmful content.

Laura Parsky, deputy assistant attorney general, said she could not comment on pending litigation, when asked about the Google case yesterday during a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing about protecting children on the Internet.

“It’s a bit odd that the government feels the need to conduct a fishing expedition with Google if it wants to test the filtering technology,” said Sherwin Siy, staff counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, which joined the ACLU as a plaintiff in the original case.

Thomas M. Boyd, a partner specializing in privacy issues at Alston & Bird LLP in Washington and a former assistant attorney general, said he understood both sides of the case.

“Though the law may be on the government’s side here, I can appreciate Google’s reluctance to turn over this information, which, presumably, contains some sensitive personal information pertaining to its customers, including e-mail addresses, without any control over how it’s treated after the fact,” he said.

Mr. Siy said Google’s defense of its users’ privacy rights was admirable, but the Mountain View, Calif., company could have avoided the problem if it didn’t keep the personal data.

“They wouldn’t have to fight if they didn’t keep this information in the first place,” he said.

Google said the government requests would put an undue burden on the company. But the motion offered to “compensate Google for its reasonable expenses,” and noted that other companies did not report any compliance difficulties.

“We did not provide any personal information in response to the Department of Justice’s subpoena,” Yahoo spokeswoman Mary Osako wrote in an e-mail yesterday. “In our opinion, this is not a privacy issue. We complied on a limited basis and did not provide any personally identifiable information.”

MSN said Microsoft Corp. “works closely with law-enforcement officials worldwide to assist them when requested,” but did not address whether the Redmond, Wash., company provided the Justice Department with any information.

Andrew Weinstein, an AOL spokesman, said the Sterling, Va., company did receive a subpoena but provided the government with only a “list of aggregate, anonymous search terms from a roughly one-day period.”

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