What do Janet Jackson, Hurricane Katrina and the Xbox 360 have in common? In 2005, they were among the top news searches on Google, says the company's year-end zeitgeist report. (Ms. Jackson, by the way, was No. 1, doubtless because of her "wardrobe malfunction.")
If officers at the world's top search engine wanted to reveal more than that from the company's vast storehouse of retained data, they could go so far as to detail the content of almost half of all Internet searches - down to specific Web sites visited by particular computers. Google is just that popular and keeps that much data.
No wonder, then, that the Justice Department wants to get inside Google. The federal request stems from a government legal effort to show that Internet filters aren't sufficient to protect children from pornography. It doesn't ask for data on individuals, only a list of all Google search requests for a single week and a million random Web site addresses in its databases.
Nonetheless, we're thankful that Google so far is resisting the federal request - more than can be said for some of its major competitors (Yahoo, MSN and AOL), which have reportedly complied in one way or another.
Resistance, of course, makes business sense for Google, which increasingly seeks to become computer users' main utility, desktop and memory - requiring almost limitless trust. But even more important, acceding to the Justice Department would set a terrible precedent. If it's not an invasion of Internet users' privacy in itself, what of the next step?
What happens if the Justice Department finds that a knot of folks, for whatever reason, have been googling al-Qaida sites? How about if they're just sites of aggressive ecological activists? Does a witch-hunt ensue? What if the department seeks to ban certain search terms, such as "Osama bin Laden" - as Beijing has forced Google and MSN to do in China with certain keywords, such as "democracy"? That's hardly inconceivable these days, given that U.S. citizens' phone calls overseas are being tracked and the White House is insisting on the right to monitor the library books we're reading.
Sure, porn must be kept away from children, but Internet filters and other, often optional controls are the best means. If the government hopes to prove otherwise, forcing Google to serve its ends threatens an even broader transgression of Internet users' rights. We encourage Google's resistance.