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Google: We had no choice in Israel ID request

Contrary to reports that Google "voluntarily" divulged the IP address of an Israeli blogger sued for defamation, the company says that it did so only when "required" by a court order.

Google is taking issue with reports saying that it "voluntarily" turned over information about a Blogger.com user to someone who filed a libel lawsuit in Israel.

An article published Tuesday on an Israeli news site said that the search company had "agreed to supply the IP address" of a blogger sued for alleged defamation, marking "the first time that Google forewent legal action in such a case." That was quickly echoed in headlines saying Google "voluntarily" divulged user data and "Google dishes out IP address of anonymous blogger."

Google spokesman Steve Langdon sent this in e-mail to me late Tuesday night:

Google's approach to personal data is clear -- we only ever hand over information about our users to third parties (such as law enforcement agencies) when they have been through the proper legal process. This ensures that we are able both to protect the privacy of our users and act responsibly where people may have used Google's products to break the law.

In terms of Blogger, we have clear terms and conditions, which users agree to when they sign up for the service. These make clear that: violent, hateful or copyright infringing content, for example, is against our rules; violation of our terms of service may lead not only to the termination of the users' account but also "state and federal penalties and other legal consequences"; and Google may investigate any violations to "comply with any applicable law, regulation, legal process or governmental request."

In terms of this case, we handed over the IP address of the Blogger after an Israeli court order required us to do so. Google has not blocked the blog or taken it down. Google gave the IP address to the court (the court handed it over to the complainant).

So what really happened? Without seeing the original court documents, it's hard to know for sure. But the story seems a bit more complicated than saying Google did this "voluntarily." Langdon, as you can see in the portion of his response I put in boldface above, says Google was "required" by law to do so -- which would make this a less interesting and more commonplace situation.

One last thought: Blogger.com appears to have its servers located in California, where libel is a civil offense but not a crime (criminal libel laws have been largely abandoned in the U.S. since the 1964 Supreme Court ruling in Garrison v. Louisiana). Libel is a crime in Israel, and this judge reportedly noted the criminal overtones. So we have a situation where there's an apparent conflict of criminal laws related to free expression. I've asked Google to explain its policy in these circumstances, so check back in a few hours for an update.

[Disclosure: Declan McCullagh is married to a Google employee.]