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Senator demands info on search engine subpoena

Patrick Leahy says he wants to know more about the Justice Department's request for search records.

A top Senate Democrat is demanding details about the Bush administration's motives for sending subpoenas to Google, America Online, Microsoft's MSN and Yahoo.

In a two-page letter (click here for PDF) sent Tuesday to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont asked the department to outline the type of information it has requested, its reasons for the requests, the steps it is taking to safeguard any data obtained, and any plans to issue additional subpoenas in the future.

Late last week, it was reported that federal prosecutors had subpoenaed the companies for millions of search records for use in preparing their upcoming defense of the constitutionality of a controversial Internet pornography law.

That 1998 pornography law, called the Child Online Protection Act, or COPA, restricts sexually explicit material deemed "harmful to minors" on commercial Web sites. The Supreme Court raised questions about its constitutionality in 2004 and sent the law back to a Philadelphia-based federal appeals court for further review.

"I am interested in learning more about the extent to which the Department of Justice is relying upon data mining of the Internet search queries made by law-abiding American citizens to support its efforts under COPA and how the department is addressing the privacy and civil liberties concerns raised by the collection, storage and use of that data," wrote Leahy, the Senate Judiciary Committee's top-ranking Democrat.

Google vowed last week to fight a renewed request from the agency, calling the subpoena overbroad. Yahoo, Microsoft and AOL all conceded that they have turned over some records, noting that they did so in a limited fashion involving only aggregated data and no personally identifiable information.

Leahy said in his letter that his concerns came "against the backdrop of strong public concern over the government's monitoring of Internet communications and warrantless eavesdropping on the telephone conversations of American citizens."

Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller said the department planned to respond accordingly, though he was not sure what the response would entail.

As for the privacy concerns raised by Leahy, "We've addressed that in our subpoenas and to the search engines," Miller said. "We weren't seeking information about the individuals, we were only seeking the search terms....We don't even want to know the names of the people."