Google wins partial keywords victory
By Eric Auchard and Adam Tanner
A federal judge denied a U.S. government request that Google Inc. be
ordered to hand over a sample of keywords customers use to search the
Internet, but required on Friday that the company produce some Web
addresses indexed in its system.
In a 21-page ruling, Judge James Ware of the U.S. District for the Northern
District of California said the privacy considerations of Google users led
him to deny part of the Justice Department's request.
"To the extent the motion seeks an order compelling Google to disclose
search queries of its users the government's motion is denied," Ware wrote.
U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales had subpoenaed Google to turn
over data the government wanted from the company as part of the Bush
Administration's attempt to defend a federal law on child pornography
on the Internet.
"You have to disclose what your robots find, but you don't have to
disclose what people search for," Andy Serwin, a privacy law expert,
said of the automated software tools Google uses to catalog the Web.
"The order does get the government what it probably needed, not what
it wanted," said Serwin, a partner with Foley & Lardner and author of
the "Internet Marketing Law Handbook."
During a court hearing on Tuesday when the government saw it was
likely to lose entirely on its subpoena, it chose instead to offer a
compromise to Google, which the company accepted. It reduced the
number of Google searches it wanted data on to just 50,000 Web
addresses and roughly 5,000 search terms from the millions or
potentially billions of addresses it had initially sought.
"The court grants the government's motion to compel only as to the
sample of 50,000 URLs (Uniform Resource Locators), from Google's
search index," the judge ruled, referring to the searchable catalog of
documents that form the core of Google's Web search service, the most
widely used in the world.
"What his ruling means is that neither the government nor anyone else
has carte blanche when demanding data from Internet companies," Nicole
Wong, Google's associate general counsel, said in a statement on the
company's Web site. The full comment is at
http://googleblog.blogspot.com/. "The government will not be permitted
to just run amok, fishing and gathering up whatever it wants. It is
unforunate other services did not hold the line and work with us on
this, instead of just giving in to government demands as they did."
STAND ON PRIVACY
Ware ruled that the 50,000 Web addresses, or URLs, were a relevant request
by the government, which wants the data for a statistical study it is doing
to show the effectiveness of filtering software at issue in a separate
case -- ACLU v. Gonzales -- that concerns a federal law on online child
"The expectation of privacy by some Google users may not be
reasonable, but may nonetheless have an appreciable impact on the way
in which Google is perceived, and consequently the frequency with
which users use Google," Ware wrote.
"This concern, combined with the prevalence of Internet searches for
sexually explicit material ... gives this court pause as to whether
the search queries themselves may constitute potentially sensitive
information," he said.
In his decision, Judge Ware wrote of the "three vital interests" that
needed to be weighed in the case: national interest, proprietary
business information and privacy concerns.
"This Court is particularly concerned any time enforcement of a
subpoena imposes an economic burden on a non-party," he wrote in a
filing made at the close of business of Friday.
Professor T. Barton Carter, a professor of communication at Boston
University's College of Communication, said that beyond privacy issues
there remain further concerns.
"It is still a little disturbing that essentially the government can
compel information from a party that is not involved in a lawsuit," he
"Given their initial request, obviously it is a victory for privacy to
the extent that no information entered from the users is being
offered," Carter said.
(Additional reporting by Adam Tanner, Duncan Martell and Jim Christie
in San Francisco.)
Copyright 2006 Reuters Limited.
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