Judge voices privacy concerns about release of
Google data to Federal government
Bay City News Service
March 14, 2006
A federal judge in San Jose indicated this morning that he would
likely allow the federal government to subpoena a random sample
of 50,000 web page addresses viewed by Google users in connection
with a lawsuit over the Constitutionality of a federal anti-pornography
However, U.S. District Court Judge James Ware said he was less
inclined to allow the federal government to subpoena a random
sample of 5,000 search queries that Google users typed into the
search engine because of privacy concerns.
"It is my intent to grant some relief to the government,''
The government is seeking the data to compile a statistical study
of the types of web pages Internet users are viewing as part of
its defense in a Pennsylvania lawsuit over the constitutionality
of the 1998 Child Online Protection Act. The act imposes criminal
penalties for the commercial distribution of any material "harmful
to minors'' over the Internet. The American Civil Liberties Union
has challenged the constitutionality of the law saying it violates
the First Amendment protections on free speech.
U.S. Department of Justice Attorney Joel McElvain told Ware this
morning that the government just wants the web page address, known
as Uniform Resource Locators or URLs, and search query samples
for statistical purposes.
"The government does not seek any personal identifying information.
We are preparing a report for civil litigation,'' McElvain said.
"It would not be shared with any federal law enforcement
Ware asked, as an example, if the name of one of his law clerks
was linked to Osama bin Laden in one of the random search queries
"you wouldn't share that with law enforcement?"
McElvain said that the information would not be shared. Ware
seemed skeptical and concerned about the public perception.
"The perception, fair or unfair . . . is that the government
is going to be out there plying the database whenever it wants
to,'' Ware said.
Google's attorney argued that the data the government is seeking
from it is irrelevant to their study and the relevant information
can be easily obtained without a subpoena from metasearch engines
such as Webtracker and Dogpile.com
"Our URLs are actually useless to the government study,''
Google attorney Albert Gidari said. "That information is
readily available today . . . without entangling Google.''
ACLU attorney Aden Fine also spoke in opposition to the government
subpoena. He agreed with Gidari that the data the government is
seeking is irrelevant to any statistical study of the types of
web pages Internet users are viewing.
"The data will not show whether the search queries were
generated by human beings or artificial programs,'' and there
is no way to tell if the search queries come from inside the United
States or outside of it, where users would not be subject to the
COPA, according to Fine.
The government has also asked for similar data from AOL, Yahoo
and Microsoft. Those companies provided undisclosed data to the
government, according to statements made today in court by the
Outside the courthouse Gidari said Google considers it a "significant
victory" that last month the government reduced its request
from two months of search queries and viewed URLs to the current
5,000 and 50,000 numbers. He was confident that Ware would not
order Google to turn over any search query data.
"We want our users to understand that when you enter a query
we're not going to be handing it over without the proper legal
procedures,'' Gidari said.
Ware promised to issue a final written decision soon.
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