Google, Government Square Off over Search Terms

 
 
By Ben Charny  |  Posted 2006-03-14
 
 
 

SAN JOSE, Calif.—A U.S. Federal Judge said on March 14 that he is inclined to allow the government to see snippets of Google users search habits.

U.S. District judge James Ware said he will "very quickly" decide the exact nature of what Google has to turn over.

Ware made his comments at the end of a courtroom proceeding here between the market-leading search engine and the Bush administration.

Despite government assurances to the contrary, the case has touched a nerve with consumers and businesses, because Internet searches often reveal private information and trade secrets.

"This is not part of a dragnet," argued Joel McElvain, of the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington D.C. "We will not share this information."

Wares decision is still being drafted; through his comments during a court hearing here, he seems inclined to force Google to give the government at least something.

That can be seen as handing the Bush administration a partial victory, although it had originally asked for billions of Web sites, and millions of key words.

When asked to evaluate Wares comments, Googles lead attorney Albert Gidari said, "We didnt lose. We took them down from billions to thousands." This is in reference to the governments original request to see two months worth of search terms, plus billions of Web sites Google has indexed.

Click here to read an eWEEK editorial on Web search privacy and censorship.

Just what Google is likely to soon provide remains unclear, though Ware strongly indicated Google will have to turn over a random sampling of a few thousand Web addresses that it has indexed.

The DOJ was once seeking two months of search terms, plus billions of indexed Web pages, but backed down after worldwide attention was drawn to the case. Now the DOJ is asking Google to provide a random sample of about 50,000 of the Web sites it makes available in search results, plus 5,000 key words that Google users have entered.

Of that data, the DOJ intends to only actually use less than a fifth of whats turned over for its stated purposes, according to Googles lead attorney Albert Gidari.

While the demand has significantly decreased, Gidari argued theres still legitimate concerns regarding safeguarding Google customers privacy and, to a much lesser degree, revealing Googles trade secrets.

"If you were one of the 1,000 people involved in this process, you wouldnt be happy," Gidari told the judge.

Legal experts handicapping the case say that if the Department of Justice did force Google to turn over the data, it would serve to whet the Bush administrations appetite for more of the same.

University researchers might use a ruling in favor of the DOJ to demand the same in the name of academic research, Ware noted during some of his extensive questioning of the attorneys presenting the arguments.

The battle between the Department of Justice and Google results from the collision of an anti-porn law and Internet search. At stake to some degree are privacy rights and the nature of law enforcements future dealing with major Internet companies.

The department said it wants the data—about a weeks worth of Google customers search requests and results—in order prove that porn and other age-inappropriate materials are an unavoidable part of life on the Net. Those findings, in turn, will be used as evidence to help resurrect an anti-Internet porn law known by its initials, COPA, the Department of Justice said.

But Google has so far refused, although rival search engines Microsoft, Yahoo and America Onlines AOL have complied. Googles argument is based mainly on its concern for customers privacy, along with the desire to keep its own trade secrets from its competitors.

The Department of Justices counter is that it hasnt asked Google for the identities of those doing the searching, nor has it collected that information from the other leading search engines; it said it is only interested in the results.

Editors Note: This story was updated to include new comments from attorneys representing both the Department of Justice and Google.

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