Internet search giant Google has been quietly battling the Bush administration since last year after it refused to turn over details about its customers’ search activity, according to court records.
According to papers filed on Wednesday in U.S. District Court in San Jose, Department of Justice lawyers said that Google refused to comply with a subpoena for a wide range of search information. Published reports indicate that information included a request for 1 million random web addresses and records of all Google searches from any one-week period.
With mountains of sensitive search and email information in its archives, concerns have been raised in the past by privacy and civil liberties organizations over Google’s stewardship of that information.
The government is hoping to gain information to help resuscitate the 1998 Child Online Protection Act, which was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court two years ago. The court held that the law violated free speech guarantees.
‘We’ve seen in the last few months that the government has a fairly loose interpretation of what’s lawful.’ -Mark Cooper, Consumer Federation of America
The law would have required adults to use access codes or other ways of registering before they could see objectionable material online, and it would have punished violators with fines up to $50,000 or jail time.
The Supreme Court ruled that there are other less draconian options to protect children such as filtering software. But the spirit of the law has not died. The government is looking for information to prove that filtering software is not enough. The Google data would be perused and synthesized to provide additional proof.
Despite their concerns about Google and its ownership of sensitive information, consumers’ rights organizations and privacy groups are generally supportive of Google’s stand.
Google apparently believes the government’s request is not lawful.
“It takes a lot of guts to say no, but someone has to protect people’s privacy. Google’s business is dependent upon people being willing to go on the web and look for stuff,” said Mr. Cooper. “If people feel they will be monitored, it will put a chill on Google’s business. The public has to have confidence in them.”
Richard Holober, executive director of the Consumer Federation of California, believes there could be common ground between Google and the government, but it all depends on the extent of the information being subpoenaed by the government.
“As a parent, there could be a valid reason for this,” said Mr. Holober. “If the government just wants to know what people are doing online without the names of the people doing the searches, it’s one thing.
“But if people’s identities are given out it’s a whole different matter,” he added. “This happens in the medical community, where information is made available, but the individual patient’s identity is shielded.”