Feds Wrestle Google for Search Records

The U.S. government has asked a California court to force Google to turn over information about usage of the company's search engine for finding pornography on the Internet.

The government says it needs those Google usage records to prepare its defense in a lawsuit brought against it by the American Civil Liberties Union. But Google is resisting.

U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales this week filed a motion in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California to compel Google to comply with the government's subpoena.

Background

The ACLU lawsuit, filed in 1998, challenges the Child Online Protection Act, which aims to protect minors from the effects of exposure to sexually explicit material on the Internet.

Nicole Wong, Google's associate general counsel, said in a prepared statement e-mailed to IDG News Service: "Google is not a party to this lawsuit and their demand for information overreaches. We had lengthy discussions with them to try to resolve this, but were not able to, and we intend to resist their motion vigorously."

The ACLU's challenge to COPA--arguing that it violates the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution--has been successful so far. The Pennsylvania district court in which the lawsuit was filed granted the ACLU's motion for preliminary injunction, and an appeals court affirmed it in 2000.

The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which vacated the judgment of the appeals court and sent it back to that court, which in turn again affirmed the preliminary injunction. The Supreme Court then reviewed the case once more, but that time it affirmed the preliminary injunction and sent the case back for trial.

Now the government is preparing its defense of COPA's constitutionality, and is specifically trying to buttress its contention that the law is more effective than filtering software in protecting minors from pornographic material on the Internet, according to the motion.

Google's Involvement

As a result, the government has issued subpoenas to Google and other search engines requesting information to make its case. But Google has refused to comply with the two requests. One request is that Google provide the government with a "random sample" of 1 million Web site addresses found in Google's search engine index. The other is for Google to provide the government with the text of all queries filed on the search engine during a specific week.

"The production of those materials would be of significant assistance to the Government's preparation of its defense of the constitutionality of this important statute," the motion filed reads. This information would help the government understand how often Web users encounter material considered "harmful to minors" as a result of using a search engine, and to determine how effective filtering software is, according to the motion.

The motion doesn't name the other search engine operators whose records were subpoenaed, but it does indicate that they complied with the request.

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