Tuesday, March 14, 2006

A federal judge yesterday said he will order Google Inc. to release some limited search data to the Justice Department.

The government had subpoenaed the information from the Internet search engine to bolster its case for resurrecting the 1998 Child Online Protection Act (COPA), which Congress approved to protect children from viewing sexually explicit material online.

U.S. District Judge James Ware in San Jose, Calif., said the two sides agreed privately to limit the scope of the government’s request.

“At a minimum, we’ve come a long way from the initial subpoena request, which was for billions of URLs and an entire week’s worth of search queries,” said Nicole Wong, Google’s associate general counsel. She added that the government on its own reduced the request to 50,000 Web site addresses and 5,000 search queries.

Ms. Wong’s e-mailed statement did not address whether Google intended to comply with the revised request, but the company would have limited appeal options based on yesterday’s proceedings.

Justice Department lawyer Joel McElvain said 10,000 of the Web sites and 1,000 of the search requests would be used in a study in the COPA case. He noted there was no personal user information in the government’s data request.

Judge Ware said he must review the agreement to ensure that it was not too much of a burden on Google and he expressed concern about forcing the Mountain View, Calif., company to turn over any individual search requests.

Nearly half of all U.S. Web searches are done via Google, followed by Yahoo Inc. at 22 percent, and MSN (Microsoft Network) at 11 percent, according to January figures from Nielsen/NetRatings.

“I understand where both parties are coming from, but I must say that it’s the old ‘trust, but verify’ argument, and I guess the most balanced compromise is verification via judicial review,” said Thomas M. Boyd, a partner specializing in privacy issues at Alston & Bird LLP in Washington.

“Judges play this sort of role often, where classified or arguably prejudicial evidence is concerned, so this sounds about right,” said Mr. Boyd, a former assistant attorney general.

The government is trying to resurrect COPA, which the Supreme Court struck down in 2004 on free-speech grounds raised by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other groups.

The high court sent the case back to a federal court in Pennsylvania. An Oct. 23 trial is scheduled.

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

Google refused the government’s initial request because it was not involved in the original case and said it thought the demand for information went too far. Yahoo, Microsoft Corp.’s MSN and America Online Inc. complied with similar government requests, on a limited basis.

Privacy advocates lamented the inclusion of Google’s search terms, which can include an individual’s name, address or other personally identifiable information.

Requiring Google to provide data in a case in which it is not directly involved also was troubling, said Sherwin Siy, staff counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, which joined the ACLU as a plaintiff in the original case.

“It’s really a stretch to do that sort of thing,” he said, adding that normally a third-party subpoena would be for direct evidence, like requesting a telephone company’s records if a call was in dispute.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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