Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Judge to force Google's hand
Judge to force Google's hand

SAN FRANCISCO, California (AP) -- A federal judge said Tuesday he intends to require Google Inc. to turn over some information to the Department of Justice in its quest to revive a law making it harder for children to see online pornography.

U.S. District Judge James Ware did not immediately say whether the data will include words that users entered into the Internet's leading search engine.

The legal showdown over how much of the Web's vast databases should be shared with the government has pitted the Bush administration against the Mountain View-based company, which resisted a subpoena to turn over any information because of user privacy and trade secret concerns.

The Justice Department downplayed Google's concerns, arguing it doesn't want any personal information nor any data that would undermine the company's thriving business.

A lawyer for the Justice Department told Ware that the government would like to have a random selection of 50,000 Web addresses and 5,000 random search requests from Google, a small fraction of the millions the government originally sought.

The government believes the requested information will help bolster its arguments in a pornography case in Pennsylvania.

The case has focused attention on just how much personal information is stored by popular Web sites like Google -- and the potential for that data to attract the interest of the government and other parties.

Although the Justice Department said it doesn't want any personal information now, the victory would likely encourage far more invasive requests in the future, said University of Connecticut law professor Paul Schiff Berman, who specializes in Internet law.

"The erosion of privacy tends to happen incrementally," Berman said. "While no one intrusion may seem that big, over the course of the next decade or two, you might end up in a place as a society where you never thought you would be."

Google seized on the case to underscore its commitment to privacy rights and differentiate itself from the Internet's other major search engines -- Yahoo Inc., Microsoft Corp.'s MSN and Time Warner Inc.'s America Online. All three say they complied with the Justice Department's request without revealing their users' personal information.

Cooperating with the government "is a slippery slope and it's a path we shouldn't go down," Google co-founder Sergey Brin told industry analysts earlier this month.

Even as it defied the Bush administration, Google recently bowed to the demands of China's Communist government by agreeing to censor its search results in that country so it would have better access to the world's fastest growing Internet market. Google's China capitulation has been harshly criticized by some of the same people cheering the company's resistance to the Justice Department subpoena.

The Justice Department initially demanded a month of search requests from Google, but subsequently decided a week's worth of requests would be enough. In its legal briefs, the Justice Department indicated it might be willing to narrow its request even further.

Ultimately, the government planned to select a random sample of 1,000 search requests previously made at Google and re-enter them in the search engine, according to a sworn declaration by Philip Stark, a statistics professor at the University of California, Berkeley who is helping the Justice Department in the case.

The government believes the test will show how easily it is to get around filtering software that's supposed to prevent children from seeing sexually explicit material on the Web.

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