The department asked the search giants to hand over millions of records involving what search terms people have used on the sites and what Web sites are accessible via the search engines.
On one level, the situation involves a straightforward question of whether the department's demands are too onerous and therefore not permitted under federal law. On another, the dispute raises novel questions about search engines' privacy protections and the relationship that four tech giants have with the federal government.
What does it all mean, and what happens next? Read on.
Q: What is the Justice Department
A: Federal prosecutors have asked Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and America Online to turn over two types of data: logs showing search terms used by people, and a list of Web sites indexed by the companies' search engines.
Q: Which companies have complied?
The Justice Department isn't talking, at least not yet. Google has opposed the request. Yahoo and AOL have acknowledged complying, saying that they went along with the government's request but did not turn over personally identifiable information. At the time this was written, Microsoft was refusing to say anything, but the ACLU has confirmed that the company did comply.
Q: What information was turned over?
We don't know. The Justice Department initially demanded that the four companies divulge "all URLs that are available to be located through a query on your company's search engine as of July 31, 2005." The subpoena also asked for "all queries that have been entered on your company's search engine between June 1, 2005 and July 31, 2005, inclusive."
But at least when trying to negotiate with Google, the Justice Department eventually narrowed that request to a "random sample of 1 million URLs" and "copies of the text of each search string entered onto Google's search engine over a 1-week period."
Q: So we don't know whether Microsoft, Yahoo and AOL went along with the initial request, or whether they negotiated a better deal?
Exactly. We just don't know, at least not yet, and they're not providing details.
AOL came the closest, saying it turned over a list of "aggregate and anonymous search terms, and not results, from a roughly 1-day period." But it refused to elaborate.
Q: Is there any law preventing a company from talking to the press?
Nope. If they chose, they could disclose all the negotiations that took place, release the correspondence they exchanged with prosecutors and so on. It's a little odd that they're being so tight-lipped.
Or they could have done what Google did and fought the Justice Department in court.
Q: I used those search engines in June and July. Should I be worried about my privacy?
It depends. If you typed in search terms that you consider to be private or confidential, you should be concerned. Such terms might include personal information about you, such as your name or street address.
But what's important to note is that the Justice Department has not been asking for any information that would link those search terms to your identity. It hasn't requested Internet Protocol addresses.
So if you typed in search terms indicating that you, say, have a healthy interest in marijuana cultivation, the data turned over won't implicate you.
Q: The subpoena came from the Justice Department's civil division. Will the attorneys there share the data with their colleagues at the department's criminal division or the FBI?
No law would appear to prohibit them from doing so. A protective order does say that only Justice Department attorneys "who have a need" for the information may receive it.
If the disclosed search logs show evidence of criminal activity, that language may be vague enough to let prosecutors return with a second subpoena to demand the identification of one or more Internet addresses linked with those search terms. Terror-related searches are another likely area of information-sharing--President Bush likes to talk about how "law enforcement officers should not be denied vital information their own colleagues already have."
There has, however, been no evidence that the Justice Department has or has not done this to date.