Feds want records of Web searches
By Seattle Times news services
The Bush administration, seeking to revive an online-pornography law struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court, has subpoenaed Google for details on what users have been looking for on its popular search engine.
Google has refused to comply with the subpoena, and on Wednesday the Bush administration asked a San Jose, Calif., federal judge to force the company to do so.
Federal investigators already have obtained potentially billions of Internet search requests made by users of major Web sites run by Microsoft, Yahoo! and America Online, which all complied with the government request, issued in August, a Justice Department official said Thursday.
The subpoena asks for a broad range of material from Google's databases, including 1 million random Web addresses and records of all Google searches from any one-week period, the Justice Department said.
Although the data do not include users' names or computer addresses, the disclosure alarmed civil-liberties advocates who fear the government may follow with requests for such information.
A Justice Department spokesman said Thursday that the government was not interested in ferreting out names — only in determining search trends as part of its efforts to regulate online pornography. But the search-engine subpoenas come amid broader concerns over how much information the government collects and how that data are used.
Congress is debating an extension of the Patriot Act, which dramatically expanded the government's ability to obtain private data. And congressional hearings are expected soon on the legality of a secret National Security Agency program to track communications by U.S. citizens without previous court approval.
"My understanding is we were seeking what keywords are put in and URLs," Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller said Thursday. "Nothing personal."
The other search engines disclosed the information after narrowing the government's original request for two months' worth of searches to one week's worth. The week was not specified.
A Microsoft spokesman said the company complied with the request "in a way that ensured we also protected the privacy of our customers. We were able to share aggregated query data ... that did not include any personally identifiable information."
Yahoo! also said it provided no personally identifiable information.
"We are rigorous defenders of our users' privacy," Yahoo! spokeswoman Mary Osako said. "We did not provide any personal information in response to the Department of Justice's subpoena. In our opinion, this is not a privacy issue."
AOL spokesman Andrew Weinstein said the company initially rebuffed the Justice Department's requests and eventually provided "an aggregated and anonymous list of search terms. ... What we gave them was something that was extremely limited, didn't have any privacy implications and is fairly common data."
Google, though, said the words in a single text query could lead the government to a searcher's identity. "One can envision scenarios where queries alone could reveal identifying information," the company wrote in a letter objecting to the demand.
"Their demand for information overreaches," said Nicole Wong, Google's associate general counsel. "We had lengthy discussions with them to try to resolve this, but were not able to and we intend to resist their motion vigorously."
More broadly, the company wrote, "Google's acceding to the request would suggest that it is willing to reveal information about those who use its services. This is not a perception that Google can accept."
One leading search expert, who wrote "The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture," praised Google's stance on the issue. "It's not just about this one request," John Battelle wrote in his Web journal Searchblog. "This is a major, major moment. And shame on the other engines for not standing up and fighting."
The Justice Department issued the subpoenas as part of its effort to resurrect the 1998 Child Online Protection Act, a federal law designed to shield children from Internet pornography. A 2004 Supreme Court decision blocked the law's enforcement.
The law required that sexually oriented commercial Web sites take steps to keep minors out, such as requiring a credit card for entry.
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 to begin in October.
The Justice Department said it needed the information to address a Supreme Court demand that it establish a "factual record" with 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 visit, estimate how much "harmful-to-minors" content may be on those sites, and gauge the effectiveness of software in screening out such material.
"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," said Aden Fine, a staff attorney in the American Civil Liberties Union's New York-based national office.
Google has the largest share of U.S. Web searches with 46 percent, according to November 2005 figures from Nielsen/Net Ratings. Yahoo! is second with 23 percent, and MSN third with 11 percent.
According to Nielsen/NetRatings, more than 38 million people — 25 percent of U.S. Internet users — visited an adult Web site in December.
Search engines and e-mail providers are asked for information on specific people in hundreds of cases yearly, both by law enforcement and in civil lawsuits. They generally comply, and their privacy policies warn users that data can be turned over to authorities.
Under a section of the Patriot Act expanding the use of so-called National Security Letters, companies such as Google can be asked to turn over potentially useful data — even about people who aren't suspected of wrongdoing.
But no previous case is known to have involved such a wide range of data.
Compiled from the Los Angeles Times, Knight Ridder Newspapers and The Washington Post
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company