Google says it plans to let the U.S. government examine a miniscule snippet of its stockpile of indexed Web sites.
The company was ordered to do just that on March 17 by U.S. District Court Judge James Ware.
Ware has given Google, based in Mountain View, Calif., until April 3 to hand over a randomly generated selection of about 50,000 Web sites that could be included in its search results.
The government plans to use the sites as raw material to test Internet filters.
Google attorney Nicole Wong, writing for the Google blog, said the company plans to comply with Wares order. She didnt indicate exactly when Google would produce the list of Web sites.
In the March 17 decision, Ware did not grant the governments additional request for a random sampling of 5,000 of search terms that Google consumers entered.
The judge wrote in the 21-page order that he was persuaded by the governments decision to significantly reduce the amount of data it wanted from Google. At one point, the department had requested what amounted to billions of Web sites, and millions of search key words.
“The Courts concerns … have been mitigated by the reduced scope [of] the governments present request,” Ware wrote.
The ruling serves to further sort out the balance between the duties of law enforcement and a search engines right to protect trade secrets and customer privacy, he wrote.
Wares decision and Googles decision to comply, some legal experts said, makes it easier for government entities to monitor Americas search habits. Privacy rights advocates are disturbed because of the personal details an Internet search session usually reveals.
Reaction to Wares decision is mixed. But a majority of those reached for comment said its a stepping stone for even larger and more far-reaching requests by the government and others for search engine customer data.
Judge Ware seems to have dodged that question for now. His ruling, he wrote, does not address “concerns articulated about the appropriateness of the governments use of courts subpoena power to gather and collect information about what individuals search the Internet for.”
But some said they believe search engines may ultimately have to rewrite their privacy policies as a result.
Another question raised is how long Internet search engines can truly protect customers from “government snooping,” said Andrew W. Klungness, an Internet and e-commerce law specialist at the law firm Bryan Cave, based in Los Angeles.
As for search consumers, the case has made clear that there is a permanent record of their online activity held by companies that may or may not have their best interests at heart, and some once-freewheeling searchers now plan to limit themselves.
“I wonder how many people might draw the analogy between the DOJs and the Chinese governments efforts to control, monitor or know what you are doing on the internet?” wrote an eWEEK.com reader, screen-named MPBishton. “Congress censured one of them. Will they censure the other?”
“These companies dont even care about their own privacy, why should they care about their users,” wrote another eWEEK.com reader, screen-named Cbaap.
In his comments from the bench a few days ago, Justice Ware spoke of trying to fight this very perception that search terms are “all subject to government scrutiny.”
Wares decision ends a few acrimonious months of litigation that helped expose a deep rift separating Google from the government and Googles competitors.
Originally, the Department of Justice asked leading search engines Google, Yahoo, Microsofts MSN, and America Onlines AOL for several months worth of key words and search results. Google refused, prompting the court action.
But the other three complied, stating that they could do so and still protect their customers privacy.
A furor erupted over whether the search engines had violated their users privacy after news broke of the requests. Aside from sparking a loud public debate, the issue also gave rise to a proposed law that seeks to solve the problem by forcing search engines to periodically erase some forms of customer data.
Editors Note: This story was updated to include more details from the ruling, and additional comment from Google.