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DoJ: Google Search Request Not a Privacy Threat

UPDATED: The Department of Justice (DoJ) has rejected Google's assertion that a government subpoena for search data threatens the privacy of Internet users.

"The government has not asked Google to produce any information that would personally identify its users," according to the DoJ's response filed Friday in a San Jose court.

Earlier this month, Google rejected the government's request in a strongly-worded response to the subpoena, arguing that the disclosure of the information could give competitors insight into its user habits. Search rivals Yahoo, MSN and AOL have already complied with the subpoena.

"Users trust that when they enter a search query into a Google search box, not only will they receive back the most relevant results, but that Google will keep private whatever information users communicate," according to Google.

But the government said Google's objections are "meritless."

The demand for search data is part of a study the government hopes will support its call for a federal law protecting children from pornography. The law, Child Online Protection Act (COPA), has been ruled unconstitutional.

The Justice Department is asking only for a sample of URLs and search queries, according to the response.

"No individual user of Google, or of any other search engine, need fear that his or her personal identifying will be disclosed," according to the government brief.

To bolster its argument the request doesn't harm the privacy of Internet users, the government included a deposition from Philip Stark, a statistics professor at the University at California, Berkely.

"The study does not involve examining the queries in more than a cursory way," wrote Stark.

"The government's subpoena over-reaches and the most recent filing has nothing to refute that," according to a statement from Nicole Long, Google's associate general counsel.

But Google's dispute with the government has gained the support of the and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Center for Democracy in Technology, a privacy watchdog group.

CDT said the government's request violates the Electronic Communications Privacy Act prohibiting online service providers from disclosing customer records.

"It's never been a principle of law that people can read your e-mail as long as they don’t know who you are," Jim Dempsey, CDT's policy director, told internetnews.com.

A San Jose federal court is set to hear oral arguments on the case March 13.