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March 14, 2006

Google Will Likely Be Forced To Share

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It was a Google, DOJ showdown as the two met at high noon (by East Coast standards, anyway) in San Jose federal court to once again wrangle over Google’s right to hold on to their search data and the millions of Web addresses and URLs it contains. United States District Judge James Ware has said he will likely require Google to turn over some information to the Department of Justice, reported the Associated Press. What (or how much) information they will be forced to give up has yet to be determined.

The Judge said he would ‘pay special attention to privacy concerns as he weighs the government’s request for the information with the interests of a private company,’ the news wire reported. The Judge also stressed he was ‘particularly concerned’ about the DOJ’s demand for a random sampling of Google’s search requests, stating he didn’t want to set the perception that search engines could become tools for government surveillance. There has always been a certain degree of anonymity attributed to Internet queries; Ware seems to recognize the ‘chilling effect’ he could cause by tampering with that.

The DOJ originally demanded a random sampling of billions of URLs and over a week’s worth of Google’s search queries. The government has since reduced that number to 50,000 Web addresses and 5,000 random search requests from Google, something the engine views as a small victory.

Google Attorney Nicole Wong:

“We’re very encouraged by the judge’s thoughtful questions and comments.
They reflected our concerns about user privacy and the scope of the
government’s subpoena request. At a minimum we’ve come a long way from the
initial subpoena request, which was for billions of URLs and an entire
week’s worth of search queries. When the government was asked to justify
their demand they conceded that they needed much less. Now the government
has on its own already reduced that to 50,000 URLs and 5,000 search queries
as a result of this process.”

The wire reported that DOJ attorney Joel McElvain acknowledged that the DOJ has ‘likely’ obtained enough information from the other search engines to conduct its study, but said the study would ‘be improved with Google’s data”. You have to wonder if the DOJ is now just continuing its fight with Google based on principle. They could surely take the data received from the other engines and use the money they are spending in court fees to research other, non-litigated avenues.

The DOJ originally subpoenaed Google nearly seven months ago, asking for a breakdown of search requests and requested URLs to defend a legal challenge to the Child Online Protection Act. Google has maintained the government’s request would intrude on its users’ privacy as well as its closely guarded trade secrets.

The folks at Search Engine Watch have compiled a comprehensive background for those who have been asleep since September.





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