Google Refuses Demand for Search Information

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By Arshad Mohammed
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 20, 2006

The Justice Department said yesterday that it subpoenaed four major Internet companies for data on what people search for on the Web as part of an eight-year battle over a federal law designed to shield children from online pornography.

Three of the companies responded to some degree, but Google Inc. said it was resisting the demand. Privacy advocates said the subpoenas raised deep concerns about the government's ability to track what ordinary people view on the Internet.

Attracted by the Internet's apparent anonymity, Americans have turned to the Web in growing numbers to view pornography and, according to one industry publication, spent $2.5 billion on online adult entertainment last year.

The government asked Mountain View, Calif.-based Google, which operates the world's most popular search engine, to turn over every query typed into its search engine over the course of one week without providing identifying information about the people who conducted the searches.

It also asked for a random sample of 1 million Web pages that can be searched in the vast databases maintained by Google, whose stated corporate mission is to "organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful."

While privacy experts said the requests appeared to have been tailored to try to protect the privacy of the millions of people who carry out searches, they said it could set a precedent for more intrusive future government demands. They also said it raised the question of just how much information Google stores about consumers.

"The real issue here is, is Google being deputized to spy on us? In this case, you could maybe argue that the spying is not that bad, because very little of it is personally identifiable, but what will the next case be?" said Richard M. Smith, a Boston-based software engineer who has written about the Internet age. "It's a terrible precedent."

Several privacy advocates said they did not object to government subpoenas in criminal cases in which someone is suspected of a crime, but they suggested that the latest demand was so broad it amounted to a fishing expedition.

"This is the government's nose under the search engine's tent. Once we cross this line it will be very difficult to turn back," said Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a District-based nonprofit group that advocates privacy protections. "If companies like Google respond to this kind of subpoena . . . I don't see why the next subpoena might not say, 'Give us what we asked for the last time -- plus a little more.'

"Google has always been a kind of ticking privacy bomb because Google retains personally identifiable information," he added. "Even though Google may intend to protect online privacy, there will be circumstances beyond their control that will place Internet users at risk, and they include government warrants, as in this case, or future security breaches which have plagued the financial services sector over the past couple of years."

The Justice Department issued subpoenas to four companies in August: Google, Time Warner Inc.'s America Online Inc., Microsoft Corp.'s Microsoft Network, and Yahoo Inc. News of the government subpoenas emerged this week when the Justice Department asked a federal court in California, where Google is based, to force the company to turn over the information.

The San Jose Mercury News reported on the filing on Thursday.


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