Yahoo Inc. said that it recently turned over information about its users searching habits to federal investigators, a startling admission that has touched off a new round of privacy concerns.
As previously reported, search inquiries may be evidence in an upcoming trial that the government hopes will revive a controversial 1998 Internet law to protect children from stumbling onto inappropriate material on the Web.
The law was struck down two years ago.
The search queries are to serve as the raw material so the government can test whether Web filters are a match for the overwhelming amount of pornography that a child could run into while online.
Aside from test results, the government also plans a review of how often Yahoo search users encounter pornography.
"We complied on a limited basis and did not provide any personally identifiable information," a Yahoo spokeswoman said.
Participation by Yahoo, and according to a source Microsofts MSN unit as well, is sure to hit a nerve with commercial and enterprise Internet consumers.
The kind of information someone searches the Internet for defines their personality to a large degree, so privacy concerns abound whenever this kind of information changes hands.
U.S. Department of Justice lawyers, in court records pertaining to the case, write that several other major Internet search providers are cooperating in this way.
The DOJ does not identify any of the companies by name. A representative didnt respond to a call seeking comment.
Aside from Yahoo, a source familiar with the matter said that Microsoft Corp.s MSN unit has also cooperated in this way.
A spokeswoman for MSN declined to confirm whether MSN has cooperated in the effort. "We cant comment on specific government inquiries," she wrote in an email.
"It is our policy to respond to legal requests in a very responsive and timely manner in full compliance with applicable law," her e-mail continued. "MSN takes the safety of its customers very seriously and is committed to providing a safe experience for consumers."
Google Inc., the Mountain View-based company that leads the search market, said Thursday that it too has been asked to turn over similar material, but is so far refusing to do so.
The combination of child privacy and porn, search giants including Google and the Bush administration could have major effects on corporate technology buyers, sellers and users.
For one, the review of Web content filters planned by the government could leave an indelible stamp on companies that make such products.
Also, should the COPA law be revived, Web page operators, Internet content providers and other Web interests would also have a new headache on their hands.
These enterprises would have to ensure, as the COPA law dictates, that minors arent exposed to anything that could be deemed "harmful."
Also, knowing that Google or other search engines can be forced to turn over sensitive customer information is sure to put a damper on the enthusiasm of consumers, both the general public and the enterprises buying search hardware and services.