Google Argues Against Subpoena

Google Inc. is fighting a Justice Department subpoena demanding search data, arguing that turning over the information could compromise trade secrets.
Google Inc. is fighting a Justice Department subpoena demanding search data, arguing that turning over the information could compromise trade secrets. (By Kimberly White -- Bloomberg News)
By Arshad Mohammed
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 18, 2006

Google Inc. said yesterday in federal court in California that the Justice Department's demand for data about Web searches could undermine public trust in the privacy of Google's service and expose its trade secrets.

In court documents, Google laid out three legal arguments for refusing to comply with a government subpoena seeking a week's worth of search queries without any personally identifiable information, as well as a random sample of 1 million Web addresses from its vast databases.

The Mountain View, Calif.-based company said the government failed to demonstrate that the information would lead to admissible evidence in an underlying court case over a 1998 law designed to shield children from online pornography.

Google also said turning over the data could reveal its trade secrets and would impose an undue burden on the company. In addition, the company said the request raised "a substantial question" about whether releasing the data would violate privacy rights under a federal law related to electronic communications.

The Justice Department has stressed that it does not want any personally identifiable information about Google users to be handed over, but privacy advocates believe the case raises concerns about the extent to which the government can track what ordinary Americans view online.

"Google users trust that when they enter a search query into a Google search box, not only will they receive back the most relevant results, but that Google will keep private whatever information users communicate absent a compelling reason," Google wrote in its filing with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in San Jose.

"The government's demand . . . would undermine that trust, unnecessarily burden Google and do nothing to further the government's case in the underlying action," it added. "The government seeks trade secrets from Google without coming close to proving that these secrets would be relevant in the underlying litigation."

The Justice Department issued subpoenas to Google and three other Internet companies last year to get the data, which it believes will help it defend the constitutionality of the Child Online Protection Act. Time Warner Inc.'s America Online Inc., Microsoft Corp.'s Microsoft Network and Yahoo Inc. each said they provided some, but not all, of the data the government wanted and did so without compromising users' privacy.

The department argues that the data will help it gauge how much inappropriate content is accessible to children on the Web and how efficient filters are in screening out such material in comparison with the 1998 law, whose enforcement has been blocked by a 2004 Supreme Court decision.

The law required sexually oriented commercial Web sites to take steps to keep out minors, such as requiring a credit card for entry.

The Supreme Court held that the government 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 due to begin in October.

Google is not itself a party to that case, which the American Civil Liberties Union brought on behalf of a number of clients to argue that the 1998 law was unconstitutional under the First Amendment.

The ACLU said it had filed a brief in San Jose urging the court to reject the demand for Google's search records, saying the government has not justified the need for the information.

"The government is not entitled to go on a fishing expedition through millions of Google searches any time it wants, just because it claims that it needs that information," ACLU staff attorney Aden Fine said in a statement.

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