WASHINGTON, 24 January 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The Justice Department issued a subpoena for the material last summer, but California-based Google refused to comply.
Last week, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales asked a federal judge in California or order Google to obey. Google still held firm.
Gonzales told a Washington news conference on 20 January that the government's demand is far from unreasonable, let alone intrusive. In fact, he said, some of Google's competitors already have agreed to share similar information.
"There have been other Internet service providers that have been forthcoming in the sharing of information. We're not asking for the identity of Americans. We simply want to have some subject matter information with respect to these communications," Gonzales said.
Can One Google Anonymously?
The subpoena demands that Google provide 1 million Internet addresses randomly culled from Google databases. It also wants a list of all the company's search requests within an unspecified week -- which could amount to millions of searches.
"It's a poor approach to protecting children online. There are excellent technological methods, Internet filtering tools, that allow parents to customize what their kids can view online.... They're better at doing what this law is attempting to do than this law would be."
The Justice Department said it needs this information to help revive a law that would protect children from Internet pornography. The law, called the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), has been struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Despite the government's assertion that it wants only anonymous material, Internet experts say some searches include identifying information about the searcher, such as federal identity numbers or unique medical information.
Lance Ulanoff, the executive editor of pcmag.com, the website of "PC Magazine," a leading American technology publication, told RFE/RL that the government is on the right track by trying to enlist the help of Google. He said Google's search engine is the first place a computer user turns to find anything from a bit of trivia to a home loan. He likened it to reading the collective mind of the 21st-century Internet culture.
"Google's the most popular search engine online. There's no better central repository of the national mind-set -- figuring out what’s on the top of people's minds and also what's at the bottom," Ulanoff said. "In some ways you can say they're [investigators are] going to the right place, but the bigger question is, 'Do they have a right to go there?' "
Ulanoff said he believes the Justice Department is also on the wrong track in demanding that Google share this information -- especially such large chunks of information. Only a small fraction of the data the government wants is likely to help its antipornography effort, he said, and most of it probably wouldn't reveal the identity of any users.
But Ulanoff said each user's Internet service provider (ISP) would be included in the requested material, and the government could then demand an ISP reveal the identity of a customer who conducted a given search.
What Is Washington Angling For?
That would be dangerous enough, Ulanoff said. What would be more frightening is how the government would treat material that's not related to its antipornography effort. Because it's unrelated, he said, the government isn't entitled to see it. "Once Google says okay to this, well, what's to stop the government from looking at everything else?"
Such broad searches are known in American legal jargon as "fishing expeditions," according to David McGuire, a spokesman for the Center for Democracy and Technology, which advocates Internet privacy. In an interview with RFE/RL, McGuire said that courts often reject such searches and demand that requests be limited to relevant data, and he hopes this will be so in the Google case.
McGuire said what he finds baffling about the Google subpoena is that it is unnecessary. He noted that there are several inexpensive programs available to parents that can keep children from visiting websites their parent's don't want them to visit.
"It's a poor approach to protecting children online. There are excellent technological methods, Internet filtering tools, that allow parents to customize what their kids can view online. They're very useful, they're very successful. They're better at doing what this law is attempting to do than this law [COPA] would be. And they also don't interfere with the ability of adults to get access to legitimate information," McGuire said.
No matter how the case turns out, Google probably will come out a winner of sorts. The company's motto is "Don't be evil," and has been widely admired for its privacy policies, and this fight can only enhance its reputation among computer users.