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Google Refuses Demand for Search Information
America Online, Microsoft and Yahoo said they had responded to the requests but stressed that they did not provide all the requested information.
"We complied on a limited basis and did not provide any personally identifiable information," Yahoo spokeswoman Mary M. Osako said. "In our opinion, this is not a privacy issue."
"We did provide the DOJ with some information that we thought would be of use to them, but it was not the information requested in the subpoena and there were no privacy implications for our users," AOL spokesman Andrew S. Weinstein said. The spokesman said AOL gave the Justice Department only a "generic list of aggregate and anonymous search terms."
"We did comply with the their request for data in regards to helping protect children in a way that ensured we also protected the privacy of our customers. We were able to share aggregated query data (not search results) that did not include any personally identifiable information at their request," a Microsoft spokesperson said in an e-mail.
The Justice Department issued the subpoenas in August as part of its effort to resurrect the 1998 Child Online Protection Act, a federal law that was designed to shield children from Internet pornography but whose enforcement has been blocked by a 2004 Supreme Court decision.
The law required that sexually oriented commercial Web sites take steps to keep minors out, such as requiring a credit card for entry. Visiting such sites has become a big business.
According to Nielsen-NetRatings, more than 38 million people -- or 25 percent of active U.S. Internet users -- visited an adult Web site in December. Adult Video News, the porn industry's trade magazine, estimates that Americans spent $2.5 billion on the Web for adult entertainment last year.
The Supreme Court held that the government had failed to prove that the law's criminal penalties would protect children without unduly limiting options for adults.
It sent the case back to the Philadelphia-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit for a trial that is due to begin in October.
Google has made it clear that it will resist the government's subpoena but said it was not doing so on privacy grounds.
"Google is not a party to this lawsuit and their demand for information overreaches. We had lengthy discussions with them to try to resolve this, but were not able to and we intend to resist their motion vigorously," Google associate general counsel Nicole Wong said in a written statement.
The company declined to further explain its position, but the Justice Department said in court documents that Google believes disclosing the information would divulge trade secrets.
The Justice Department said it needed the information to address a Supreme Court demand that it establish a "factual record" on which to buttress its argument that the 1998 federal law would be more effective than filtering software in preventing children from accessing adult material on the Internet.
The government argued that the Google data would, among other things, help it to understand what Web sites people can find using a search engine, to estimate how much "harmful-to-minors" content may be on those sites and to gauge the effectiveness of software in screening out such material.
Aden J. Fine, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, which is part of a group that opposed the 1998 law in court on grounds that it violated the First Amendment, said Google was right to resist the demand.
"This is the latest example where the government seems to think they are entitled to get all sorts of information without providing an adequate justification," Fine said. "They have not explained exactly what they are going to do with this information and exactly why they need it. Until they do that, they are not entitled to get this information."
Staff writers Mike Musgrove and Yuki Noguchi contributed to this report.