The Feds Go Fishing, but Google Aint Biting

Opinion: Google should not have to pay for what amounts to a government scavenger hunt for online pornography. Can't they find enough of it without Google?

What is that saying about the curse of having your wish come true?

I am thinking about that and imagining some government lawyer receiving a set of tapes listing every URL accessible through Google. That and a log of every Google search request for a full month.

Imagine how much data that must be, and the time and effort it would take for the government to turn it into a useful defense of a 1998 law intended to protect children from seeing Internet porn. Talk about your tax dollars at play!

In reading the news coverage, Ive seen what the government has subpoenaed from Google described in different ways. One story says the feds want "only" 1 million random web addresses and a log of all the searches entered during a single week, rather than a month.

Regardless, Google says it will "vigorously" fight the subpoena, which was issued back in August.

This week, the Justice Department asked a U.S. District Court to enforce the order. MSN and Yahoo have already complied with much more limited requests. All agree that the Justice Department is not seeking information that could be linked to specific users.

/zimages/2/28571.gifMSN, Yahoo turn over search terms to feds. Click here to read more.

In its response, Google says providing the data would be an unfair burden and could reveal trade secrets. The company says it would take considerable engineering time to gather the data, which it believes the government has no right to have, anyway.

There are a number of troublesome issues here, but what tops my list is that Google might actually have a history file containing every search thats been requested of some lengthy period of time.

Worse is my fear that these searches could potentially be matched up to specific users. If you could track everything a person had searched over a period of time, youd know an awful lot about that person.

I see how this information could be extremely valuable when used properly. I also see the incredible damage that improper disclosure could do. I can see why the information might be provided in response to a specific threat or emergency, but not for routine surveillance.

In this case, however, the government seems to be on a fishing expedition, looking for data to buttress its case that the 1998 Child Online Protection Act really isnt unconstitutional. If the government were paying Google and the others to prepare the information, I can see valid reasons why it should be provided.

I do not, however, see why Google should be required to pay for what amounts to a government scavenger hunt for online pornography. Cant the feds find enough of it without Googles help?

Better yet, the government could attach key loggers to some childrens computers, with parental permission, of course, and the feds would quickly learn exactly how much porn the youngsters are exposed to. And they could do it without wading through scads of Google search requests and URLs.

/zimages/2/28571.gifClick here to read more about Googles battle with the government over customer information.

As for Google itself, the company should make clear the types and amount of information it maintains, particularly any that links specific searches to specific users. Having said that, I am not sure what the "correct" answer to the question would be.

I am not sure Google should ever be able to link searches to specific users and that the personally identifying information Google maintains should be the smallest amount possible.

But, on the morning after a terrorist attack, I am sure Id feel differently.

Thankfully, thats not the situation were dealing with today. Instead, we just need to teach the feds the difference between a subpoena and a fishing license.

Contributing editor David Coursey has spent two decades writing about hardware, software and communications for business customers. He can be reached at

/zimages/2/28571.gifCheck out eWEEK.coms for the latest news, views and analysis on enterprise search technology.