Google, For the Most Part, Won’t be Searched

In a late Friday ruling, which is not subject to appeal, Judge James Ware of U.S. District Court in San Jose, Calif. said Google would have to turn over the log of 50,000 URLs to the Department of Justice, but not any of the data on 5,000 search queries the DoJ requested.

Google could rightly declare victory even before the judge issued his ruling, following a hearing last week in the case.

In Google’s battle, the question was how much the search giant would have to concede at all in its battle with the Department of Justice (DoJ) over search query data.

As it turned out, very little. A DoJ subpoena to Google sought an index of millions of URLs and a week’s worth of search data. A similar request was made to America Online, Yahoo and Microsoft (MSN), all of which complied.

The government is defending itself in a privacy suit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU); as part of that defense, 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.

After Google challenged the government’s request in court, the DoJ greatly pared its request earlier this month to a log of 50,000 URLs and a random sampling of 5,000 search queries noting also that it only planned to look at a fraction of each.

Friday’s ruling said Google would have to turn over the log of 50,000 URLs but not any of the search query data the government had sought.

Google was quick to comment on the decision in its own blog where Nicole Wong, associate general counsel for the company, said Google intended to fully comply with the Judge’s order. Wong also said in part:

“This is a clear victory for our users and for our company, and Judge Ware’s decision regarding search queries is especially important. While privacy was not the most significant legal issue in this case (because the government wasn’t asking for personally identifiable information), privacy was perhaps the most significant to our users.”

Lauren Gelman, associate director of Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society, said the ruling may lead Google’s competitor’s to reconsider whether to so easily accede to future government requests for information on their user’s search habits. In the wake of Google’s challenge, those companies have emphasized they turned over search terms and other records but not individual’s private data.

Still, Gelman told that she thought Google’s competitors were “publicly embarrassed that Google challenged the subpoena to protect its users and they didn’t.”

Government experts have repeatedly declared the information they collect is for research purposes and will not be used to pursue individuals — assuming it even could be.

But in his ruling, Judge Ware criticized the government for describing the methodology it would use for a study that would categorize URLs in Google’s search index, but not detailing how it would evaulate the effectiveness of filtering software.

“The Government does not even provide this rudimentary level of general detail as to what it intends to do with the sample of URLs to evaluate the effectiveness of filtering software,” Judge Ware wrote in his decision.

Wong said Google will “always be subject to government subpoenas, but the fact that the judge sent a clear message about privacy is reassuring. What his ruling means is that neither the government nor anyone else has carte blanche when demanding data from Internet companies. When a party resists an overbroad subpoena, our legal process can be an effective check on such demands and be a protector of our users.”

Stanford’s Gelman called the Google/DoJ case “a wake up call to anyone that uses Google, or any of the other search services. People are now seeing that there is a record being created any time they do anything online.”

Google also recently won an unrelated federal court ruling against an author who sued over the search engine’s caching of his content.

And in a development unrelated to the Google/DoJ case, but one that may have a bearing on the government’s efforts to restrict access to pornography on the Web, U.S. Senators Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) introduced a bill Thursday that would require Web sites with adult content to have a .xxx domain. Filters would theoretically be more effective by only having to block access to a specific domain.

Baucus and Pryor’s legislation would require the Secretary of Commerce to negotiate with the international NGO– Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers to develop a special domain name for Web sites with adult content. ICANN is charged with selecting domain names such as .gov, .com, .org, .net, and .edu. Baucus said the U.S. Department of Commerce would fine Web sites that don’t comply with the new .XXX domain though it’s not clear how much of a deterrent the fines would be and whether any government agency is up to the task of policing all the porn on the Internet.

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