Search, COPA and Dealing With The Feds

Everyone has their limit. Even search engines.

In the fall of 2005, the U.S. Department of Justice issued subpoenas to the top four search engines, in hopes of figuring out what people are searching for and what they’re finding.

The moves were related to the government’s defense of the Child Online Protection Act, or COPA. COPA was enacted in 1998, making 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 where it awaits trial.

The feds originally asked Google to provide a list of every URL in its index, along with a list of all queries entered into its search engine between June 1 and July 31 2005.

The DoJ also subpoenaed MSN, Yahoo and AOL. Although no one would comment, it’s likely the demands were the same.

Then the dickering began.

MSN issued a statement saying only, “We did comply with their request for data in regards to helping protect children in a way that ensured we also protected the privacy of our customers. We were able to share aggregated query data (not search results) that did not include any personally identifiable information at their request.”

Yahoo was similarly elusive. “We did not provide any personal information in response to the Department of Justice’s subpoena,” said spokeswoman Mary Osako, reading from the statement.

AOL spokesman Andrew Weinstein confirmed to that AOL didn’t comply with the original subpoena. He wouldn’t discuss negotiations with the DoJ, but said that the company ultimately provided it with information that might be of use but that had no privacy implications.

“We gave them a generic list of aggregated and anonymous search terms, but no results or personally identifiable information,” Weinstein said.

But Google held out. According to a motion filed in U.S. District Court in San Jose last Wednesday, the negotiations between the search Goliath and the DoJ were “lengthy.” The Feds’ last offer: the text of all search strings entered into the search engine over a one-week period, absent any information identifying the person who entered the query; and a random sample of 1 million URLs from the index.

Google said no.

The Supreme Court asked the government to prove that COPA would be more effective in protecting children than the use of filtering software. According to the government’s request to compel Google to respond, “… the Government will be able to review the sample to draw conclusions as to the prevalence of harmful-to-minors material on the portion of the Internet that is retrievable through search engines.”

As reported, the ACLU contends the law is unconstitutional on free speech grounds and that there are less draconian ways to protect children while they are online; primarily, filters.

For its defense of COPA, the DoJ wants to know just how effective filters are and the real data rests in the databases of Google and other search engines. The DoJ issued subpoenas for the data it is seeking and, according to the DoJ, “Google has refused to comply…in any way.”

Google, for its part, issued a statement: “Google is not a party to this lawsuit and their demand for information overreaches. We had lengthy discussions with them to try to resolve this, but were not able to and we intend to resist their motion vigorously.”

Roy Mark contributed to this story.

News Around the Web