Google Spurns DOJ Search Data Subpoena

Search giant Google has refused to comply with a White House subpoena demanding one week’s worth of search engine strings submitted to the Google search engine, even though the government isn’t asking for any additional information which could be used to identify Google users, although it also wants a list of 1 million random Web addresses included in Google’s search index.

The subpoena was first issued in the summer of 2005 as part of the federal government’s effort to restore 1998’s Child Online Protection Act (COPA). The COPA statute criminalizes posting free online material deemed “harmful to minors,” providing penalties of up to $50,000 per day and six months in prison.COPA was immediately challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and others, and the case now awaits trial after having twice been sent back to lower courts by the U.S. Supreme Court. The ACLU and others argue COPA violates First Amendment free speech rights, and non-legislative solutions (such as filtering and kids-safe service) offer effective ways to protect children online without resorting to authoritarian measures.

The Department of Justice is seeking data on search engine usage to prepare part of its defense of COPA, and claims it needs the search data to understand Web user behavior and estimate how often typical Web users encounter material which would be considered harmful to minors. It also sought similar data from Yahoo, Microsoft, and AOL: Yahoo and AOL report they have complied, and the ACLU reports that Microsoft also complied. The Department of Justice and Google have been negotiating for some time, resulting in the DOJ substantially reducing the amount of information it was requesting from Google; it’s not known at this time whether other search engines complied with the original DOJ request or negotiated their own disclosures.

Google counters that it is not party to the COPA case before the courts and the subpoena is overly broad. Privacy advocates note many search strings themselves often contain personally identifiable information such as addresses and names, and that the government is effectively demanding Google perform as its research lab, subpoenaing data for research into a case with which it has no involvement rather than subpoenaing evidence.

The Department of Justice has asked a San Jose judge to order Google to comply with its subpoena.