Feds demand list of Web users’ queries

Billions of Internet search requests made by users of Web sites run by Yahoo, Inc., Microsoft Corp. and America Online, Inc., have been obtained by federal investigators. Only Google, the most popular search engine company, said “No!” to the feds.

Consequently, the Justice Department is taking Google to court in an effort to force them to comply with government demands.

The move by the federal government, reported by the Los Angeles Times, has raised strong concerns about how the massive amount of data will be used. Justice Department lawyers received a week’s worth of online queries by millions of Americans. The data subpoenaed includes everything from how many times citizens asked for “apple pie recipes” to “bomb instructions.”

Internet companies involved claim their users’ privacy was not violated by release of the data because it doesn’t include names or computer addresses. Nonetheless, civil liberties advocates were alarmed. They believe the government may come back later and demand more detailed information.

A spokesman for the Justice Department said federal officials aren’t interested in checking names, just search trends as it tries to control online pornography—specifically, child pornography. The subpoenas, however, arrive at a time when there are broader concerns about how much information the government is collecting and to what use the data is put.

At present, Congress is debating extension of the Patriot Act, which gives the government nearly unrestricted access to private data. Congressional hearings are looming on the legality of a National Security Agency effort to eavesdrop on communications of U.S. citizens without first getting court approval.

Privacy advocates say the chance to snoop into the public’s private thoughts and habits is unprecedented.

According to Kurt Opsahl, staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, search engines retain “a massive database that reaches into the most intimate details of your life; what you search for, what you read, what worries you, what you enjoy. It’s critical to protect the privacy of this information so people feel free to use modern tools to find information without the fear of Big Brother looking over their shoulder.”

The San Jose Mercury News was the first to report Google’s refusal to meet the government’s demands. Under part of the Patriot Act that expands the use of “national security letters,” companies like Google can be asked to release potentially useful data—even about people who are not suspects in terrorist or criminal cases—and at the same time, the companies are barred from disclosing such action by the federal government.

There is, however, no previous case involving this much wide-ranging data. Nicole Wong, Google’s associate general counsel, said: “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.” Government lawyers filed a brief in U.S. District Court in San Jose demanding that Google release the data.

Other Internet companies said the Justice Department originally wanted two months’ worth of data, but they negotiated it down to one week’s worth.

“We are rigorous defenders of our users’ privacy,” said Mary Osako, Yahoo! spokesman. “We did not provide any personal information in response to the Department of Justice’s subpoena. In our opinion, this is not a privacy issue.”

A spokesman for Microsoft said the company met the federal demand “in a way that insured we also protected the privacy of our customers. We were able to share aggregated query data…that did not include any personally identifiable information.”

Andrew Weinstein, spokesman for America On line, a subsidiary of Time Warner, Inc., said the company initially refused the federal demand but eventually furnished “an aggregated and anonymous list of search terms. What we gave them was something that was extremely limited, didn’t have any privacy implications and is fairly common data.”

The director of the non-profit Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in San Diego, Beth Givens, said the other companies should have followed Google’s lead and fought the subpoenas. “Google and the other search engines represent a very appealing honey pot for government investigators,” she said.

Charles Miller, a Justice Department spokesman, said the government wanted an overview of what people look for online as part of an effort to restore an anti-pornography law that was struck down by the Supreme Court.

The Child Online Protection Act was passed in 1998. It establishes fines and jail terms for any business that publishes sexually-oriented material on the Internet that is obscene or offensive, unless underage individuals are screened out by demanding proof of age through a credit card or other means.

Two years ago, the Supreme Court supported an injunction against the law but sent the case back to a lower court in Pennsylvania. Most of the justices at that time wrote that the government could save the law if it demonstrated that the rules in the measure were more effective than Internet filters in balancing the need to keep pornography from children, yet balancing the free speech rights of Web site operators.

Philip Stark, a professor at the University of California-Berkeley, who works for the government, said in the San Jose court brief that the queries, along with a list of available Web sites, would show what users were viewing and how often they found material the government considered harmful to minors.

The government also asked the Internet companies for addresses of every Web site in their search engine indexes. That request was bargained down to 1 million randomly-chosen addresses. Federal lawyers said they needed the information to determine the number of Web sites harmful to minors and to see how effective filtering software was on those sites.

“We’re not seeking any individual information regarding anybody who entered the query terms,” Miller said.

From the Jan. 25-31, 2006, issue

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