By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 2, 2006
Google Inc., which refused in the past year to hand over user search data to U.S. authorities fighting children's access to pornography, said yesterday that it was complying with a Brazilian court's orders to turn over data that could help identify users accused of taking part in online communities that encourage racism, pedophilia and homophobia.
The difference, it says, is scale and purpose.
The Justice Department wanted Google's entire search index, billions of pages and two months' worth of queries, for a broad civil case. Brazil, by contrast, is looking for information in specific cases involving Google's social networking site, Orkut.
"What they're asking for is not billions of pages," said Nicole Wong, Google associate general counsel. "In most cases, it's relatively discrete -- small and narrow."
Google released a statement yesterday saying it was complying with the Brazilian court orders following a ruling Thursday by a Brazilian judge that threatened Google with a fine of $23,000 a day for noncompliance.
According to Google, the judge mistakenly thought the company was resisting because court orders had been sent to Google's Brazilian subsidiary, Google Brazil, instead of to Google Inc. headquarters in the United States. So far, has complied with 26 court orders that have been redirected to Google Inc., Wong said. Google has stored information relating to at least 70 more cases in anticipation of a court order, she said.
The Brazilian authorities are particularly interested in Internet protocol addresses with time and date stamps that can help trace a specific user. Registration information Google could provide includes names and e-mail addresses.
Orkut pulls objectionable words and pictures from user sites, but Google stores content it feels could be useful in a lawsuit. Orkut is especially popular in Brazil, which accounts for 75 percent of its 17 million users.
Legal and privacy experts said that Google had no choice but to comply with the court order. "From the law enforcement perspective, if the records are in the possession of the business, the business can be compelled to produce them," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center.
The larger point, civil libertarians said, is that as long as Internet companies retain data that can identify people, which they use for marketing purposes, they will become targets of law enforcement.
That can raise dilemmas for the companies, they said.
"Suppose the Chinese government sought the identities of people who visited dissident Web sites? Or the Iranian regime wanted to identify those who posted material critical of Islam? " said David Sobel, senior counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation in Washington.
Last year, Yahoo Inc. confirmed that it had given Chinese authorities information later used to convict a Chinese journalist imprisoned for leaking state secrets.
"It's almost a defining moment for the industry," Rotenberg said. "They need to decide if they want to become a one-stop shop for government prosecutors."
European and Latin American laws permit prosecution for hate speech -- an approach the U.S. Constitution does not allow, though hate crimes can be prosecuted.
Google, in its statement, said "it is and always has been our intention to be as cooperative in the investigation and prosecution of crimes as we possibly can, while being careful to balance the interests of our users and the request from the authorities."
Research assistant Alice Crites contributed to this report.