Government reduces demands for Google data

March 15, 2006|By CHRIS GAITHER | CHRIS GAITHER,LOS ANGELES TIMES

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Justice Department lawyers drastically scaled back yesterday their demand for information about Google Inc. search queries - a major concession in a closely watched case over online privacy.

But in a blow to privacy advocates, the federal judge in the case said he would probably order the Internet search giant to hand over at least some of the data sought by the government.

The Justice Department wants Google to provide a sample of the Internet search terms its users type as part of a broader effort to regulate online pornography. The government also wants a sample of the Web sites Google archives in its database.

Other top Internet companies - including Yahoo Inc., Microsoft Corp. and America Online Inc. - complied with subpoenas seeking similar information. But Google executives balked, and the case became a test of the government's reach in the Internet Age.

Recognizing that, U.S. District Judge James Ware hinted during a hearing that he was considering limiting any order to balance the business and privacy implications of the Bush administration's request against the government's need to gather evidence.

Google, Ware said, has the right to run its business without "perceptions by the public that somehow [its service] is subject to government scrutiny."

After months of negotiations, the Bush administration revealed yesterday that it had reduced its demands, to 5,000 randomly selected search terms entered by Google users and 50,000 Web site addresses in Google's searchable index. The government previously had requested a week's worth of queries, which could have numbered in the billions, and 1 million indexed Web addresses.

"Reducing the number of search queries that are revealed reduces the harm to privacy because much less information is being revealed," said Kurt Opsahl, staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group that advocates online privacy.

Nonetheless, Opsahl and others said, the case highlights how irresistible government agencies and civil lawyers are finding the treasure trove of digital information that Internet companies collect.

Federal investigators already have obtained potentially billions of Internet search requests made by users of other major Web sites, raising concerns about how the massive data trove will be used.

The Internet companies have said that the information did not violate their users' privacy because the data did not include names or computer addresses. Even so, the disclosure alarmed civil liberties advocates, who fear that the government could seek more detailed information later.

Google argued that compiling and turning over the data would expose trade secrets about its search engine and violate the privacy of its users.

Ware, too, expressed skepticism yesterday that government lawyers, who requested the data for an unrelated civil lawsuit regarding its effort to protect children from online pornography, wouldn't share any information with federal investigators.

If a search query appeared to link someone with Osama bin Laden, the judge asked a government lawyer, "Are you telling me the government would ignore it and not use it?"

The government's attorney, Joel McElvain, replied that the data would be used only for the purpose of testing how well Internet filters prevent children from accessing Web sites that are harmful to minors. The Justice Department needs that information as part of its effort restore the Child Online Protection Act, a 1998 law that has been blocked by a federal court in Pennsylvania.

Chris Gaither writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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