Feds after Google data
By Howard Mintz
Mercury News

The Bush administration on Wednesday asked a federal judge to order Google
to turn over a broad range of material from its closely guarded databases.

The move is part of a government effort to revive an Internet child
protection law struck down two years ago by the U.S. Supreme Court. The law
was meant to punish online pornography sites that make their content
accessible to minors. The government contends it needs the Google data to
determine how often pornography shows up in online searches.

In court papers filed in U.S. District Court in San Jose, Justice Department
lawyers revealed that Google has refused to comply with a subpoena issued
last year for the records, which include a request for 1 million random Web
addresses and records of all Google searches from any one-week period.

The Mountain View-based search and advertising giant opposes releasing the
information on a variety of grounds, saying it would violate the privacy
rights of its users and reveal company trade secrets, according to court

Nicole Wong, an associate general counsel for Google, said the company will
fight the government's effort ``vigorously.''

``Google is not a party to this lawsuit, and the demand for the information
is overreaching,'' Wong said.

The case worries privacy advocates, given the vast amount of information
Google and other search engines know about their users.

``This is exactly the kind of case that privacy advocates have long
feared,'' said Ray Everett-Church, a South Bay privacy consultant. ``The
idea that these massive databases are being thrown open to anyone with a
court document is the worst-case scenario. If they lose this fight,
consumers will think twice about letting Google deep into their lives.''

Everett-Church, who has consulted with Internet companies facing subpoenas,
said Google could argue that releasing the information causes undue harm to
its users' privacy.

``The government can't even claim that it's for national security,''
Everett-Church said. ``They're just using it to get the search engines to do
their research for them in a way that compromises the civil liberties of
other people.''

The government argues that it needs the information as it prepares to once
again defend the constitutionality of the Child Online Protection Act in a
federal court in Pennsylvania. The law was struck down in 2004 because it
was too broad and could prevent adults from accessing legal porn sites.

However, the Supreme Court invited the government to either come up with a
less drastic version of the law or go to trial to prove that the statute
does not violate the First Amendment and is the only viable way to combat
child porn.

As a result, government lawyers said in court papers they are developing a
defense of the 1998 law based on the argument that it is far more effective
than software filters in protecting children from porn. To back that claim,
the government has subpoenaed search engines to develop a factual record of
how often Web users encounter online porn and how Web searches turn up
material they say is ``harmful to minors.''

The government indicated that other, unspecified search engines have agreed
to release the information, but not Google.

``The production of those materials would be of significant assistance to
the government's preparation of its defense of the constitutionality of this
important statute,'' government lawyers wrote, noting that Google is the
largest search engine.

Google has the largest share of U.S. Web searches with 46 percent, according
to November 2005 figures from Nielsen//NetRatings. Yahoo is second with 23
percent, and MSN third with 11 percent.
Mercury News Staff Writer Michael Bazeley contributed to this report.
Contact Howard Mintz at [EMAIL PROTECTED] or (408) 286-0236.

© 2006 and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

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