RealTime IT News

U.S. A.G.: Limits to Data it Can Collect

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez gave a big high five to the enforcement of intellectual property (IP) laws during a visit to the Windmill Springs Middle School here.

He may well have been giving high fives over the government's efforts to defend the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), which has resulted in subpoenas of search data from search companies such as Google, MSN and AOL.

His appearance, during which he literally traded high-fives with dozens of delighted elementary school students Thursday, was part of a round table discussion with a small press gathering about the government's IP protection efforts, as well as its recent court cases on Internet-related issues regarding search engine data.

In response to a question about a recent court ruling that largely favored Google in its challenge of a Department of Justice subpoena for search data, Gonzalez said he was "happy a federal judge decided what we asked for was relevant."

"What we're trying to do is protect our children and protect a federal statute," Gonzalez continued. "We got access to certain information, and we will use that."

Though privacy concerns were raised by Google and many privacy advocates over the DoJ's request, Gonazalez emphasized, "We were not asking for user information, that was never our intent."

The subpoena is related to the government's defense of the Child Online Protection Act, or COPA. Enacted in 1998, the law intended to make it illegal to post free online material considered to be "harmful to minors."

The Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union went to court to block the law; the case has twice been before the Supreme Court and twice been sent back to a lower court. As part of its defense of a privacy suit brought by the ACLU over COPA, it is collecting search data in order to get a representative sampling of how much and how easily pornographic and other obscene material is being accessed via search engines and whether filtering software is effective in keeping minors from seeing it.

"There are limits to what information the government can get, we understand and respect that," Gonzalez said about the Google search data issue.

Regarding intellectual property protection, an aide to Gonzalez said IP protection is an issue raised at every meeting with officials in China and many European countries. He said he's encouraged that Chinese officials at the highest government levels now recognize the need to protect IP, which he said hasn't been the case in past years.

But he also conceded the effort has been slow in producing positive results. He said 70 percent of all pirated goods seized by customs officials at U.S. borders in 2005 originated in China and another five percent from Hong Kong. In past years the percent from China was around 64 percent.

In March, 2004 the DoJ created the Task Force on Intellectual Property which followed up seven months later with specific recommendations on ways to improve IP protection.

Among a checklist of accomplishments it provided, the DoJ said it increased the number of defendants prosecuted for intellectual property offenses by 97 percent from October 2004 through the end of fiscal year 2005. It also created five Computer Hacking and Intellectual Property Units in the U.S. Attorneys offices in Nashville, Orlando, Pittsburgh, Sacramento and Washington D.C. bringing the total number of specialized units to 18.

The DoJ also took credit for leading the international take down against members of over 22 major online software piracy groups in "Operation Site Down" in 2005, involving 12 countries, the simultaneous execution of over 90 searches worldwide, and the eradication of at least eight major online distribution sites.

Prosecutors have obtained indictments against 44 defendants and 10 convictions to date, according the DoJ.

Also, last May government agents shut down a sophisticated international peer-to-peer network known as the Elite Torrents used by 133,794 members in the first ever criminal action against a BitTorrent file-sharing network accused of illegally distributing movies, music and software titles.

The AG's visit was the culmination of a program at the school to teach the youngsters about intellectual property rights. A group of about a hundred of the students was asked if they were aware of IP and the consequences of illegal downloading of songs and videos. No hands went up; they did raise their hands when asked if they were now aware.

Programs of this kind are in their infancy and it's doubtful anyone with the stature of the U.S. Attorney General will be able to visit many schools to hammer home the IP protection message. But Gonzalez expressed optimism that it'll be worth the effort to try and educate the next generation of students about the laws of the land.

"I'm not kidding myself, we have a lot of work to do," said Gonzalez. "That doesn't mean we shouldn't try." He said it was important for kids to understand stealing music or movies off the Internet is no different than stealing jeans in a department store, it's illegal and there are consequences.

One Windmill student named Haley said that program had taught her not to take piracy on the Internet lightly. "People worked hard to create something and you should pay them for it," she said.

Some of the kids also got an unplanned lesson in free speech. A lone protester shouted epithets like "Get that fascist out of my town," just off the school grounds under the watchful eye of local police and secret service agents.