Feds: Google's privacy concerns unfounded

Justice Department says search giant's arguments for refusing to turn over information lack merit.

Greg Sandoval Former Staff writer
Greg Sandoval covers media and digital entertainment for CNET News. Based in New York, Sandoval is a former reporter for The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. E-mail Greg, or follow him on Twitter at @sandoCNET.
Greg Sandoval
3 min read
The U.S. Justice Department has denied requesting anything from Google that could threaten the privacy of the search engine's users, as the company recently contended.

And by trying to block the government's efforts to review a week's worth of search terms, Google is holding up efforts to protect children from pornography, according to a brief filed Friday by the Justice Department.

The Justice Department was responding to Google's legal filing earlier this month, in which the search giant argued that the government's request for 1 million pages from Google's index, as well as copies of a week's worth of search terms, would harm the company in numerous ways.

The information that the Justice Department requested is to be used in a study to help the Bush administration defend the 1998 Child Online Protection Act (COPA), an Internet pornography law. The government is seeking to highlight flaws in Web-filtering technology during a trial this fall.

Google maintains that complying with the government's request would mean disclosing important trade secrets, take up too many of the company's resources to produce and harm its reputation with users.

The issue has raised red flags among privacy-watchdog groups, which fear that Web sites could be used to spy on Americans or limit their right to free speech. The American Civil Liberties Union is challenging COPA, arguing that Web sites cannot realistically comply with it and that the law violates the right to freedom of speech mandated by the First Amendment.

On Feb. 17, Google issued a strongly worded declaration to the court, criticizing prosecutors for a "cavalier attitude" and questioning their understanding of search-engine technology.

On Friday, the Justice Department said Google's arguments were without merit.

"It should first be noted what is not at issue here," the Justice Department wrote in the 18-page legal brief. "The government has not asked Google to produce any information that would personally identify its users.

"The government seeks this information only to perform a study, in the aggregate, of trends in the Internet. No individual user of Google, or of any other search engine, need fear that his or her personal identifying information will be disclosed."

Google also failed to link the information the government requested to "any supposed trade secrets," the Justice Department said in its brief. As for the costs of complying with the Justice Department's subpoena, the government argued that Google could "comply with the subpoena with relative ease."

The Justice Department noted that Google's competitors--American Online, Yahoo and MSN--gathered the information without much trouble when those companies voluntarily complied with similar requests.

Lastly, the government hung its argument on precedent, saying that the right of the government to obtain information needed to present its case outweighed any of Google's arguments.

"The government has a legitimate need for the disclosure of data that is uniquely in Google's possession," the Justice Department said in its filing. "The balance certainly weighs in favor of disclosure of any alleged trade secrets."

The Justice Department requested that Google be given 21 days in which to comply with the court's order.

Google representatives could not immediately be reached for comment.