America Online, Microsoft, Yahoo and Google have received demands to turn over reams of data on exactly what words and phrases their users are typing into the companies respective search engines.
Microsoft and Yahoo have admitted to complying, at least in part, with the subpoenas. AOL officials also said that they have turned over a limited amount of data to the government.
But the real surprise in all of this is that Google has decided to fight the Department of Justices demands.
The company has been criticized repeatedly in the last year or so for various practices that some customers and privacy advocates find questionable. Searching Gmail users messages for keywords that can be matched with relevant text ads is just one example.
But the undisputed search leader has said that it has not turned over data to the government and does not plan to. In response, the DOJ earlier this month sought a court order to compel Google to comply with the subpoena.
The DOJ said it wants the data—which does not include customers names or their PCs IP addresses—to help it fight a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union in an effort to stop the administration from reviving the controversial COPA (Child Online Protection Act).
COPA, enacted in 1998, prohibits Web site operators from posting sexually explicit content that could be harmful to minors, unless minors cannot access the content.
The ACLU challenged the law, saying that it is too burdensome on ISPs and other organizations that are forced to supply data to help the government enforce the law. The Supreme Court in 2004 ordered a trial to determine whether the law violates the Constitution.
For its part, the administration contends that COPA is "more effective than filtering software in protecting minors from exposure to harmful materials on the Internet."
Google is having none of it. "Google had lengthy discussions to try to resolve this but [representatives] were not able to, and we intend to resist ... vigorously," Google Associate General Counsel Nicole Wong said in a statement.
Good for Google.
The recent disclosure that the Bush administration is using the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on calls made by U.S. citizens—an action that many experts believe is in violation of the Constitution—is simply the latest in a long line of morally and legally ambiguous efforts by the presidents men to stick their noses into every little corner of Americans lives.
Theres not much that private citizens or corporate America can do about most of these initiatives, but in the case of the DOJ subpoenas, one of these companies needed to stand up and say no.
Thankfully, Google has done just that.
Make no mistake, Google will almost certainly have to comply with the governments orders in one form or another. A subpoena is a subpoena, after all.
But the act, however symbolic it might be, of fighting the administration on this will likely go a long way toward winning back some of the goodwill and swagger that the company seems to have lost recently.
If nothing else, it shows customers and politicians—not to mention Microsoft, Yahoo and AOL—that Google is unwilling to simply hand over data any time someone from inside the Beltway asks for it.
A novel position, to be sure, and one I hope Google and others continue to take.
News Editor Dennis Fisher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.