Google Inc has officially rejected a request from the US Department of Justice that it hand over records of web searches, telling a San Jose court that a Government subpoena is “so uninformed as to be nonsensical”.
The Mountain View, California-based search giant is holding out against DoJ attempts to access search data in order to demonstrate the legality of the controversial Child Online Protection Act. While AOL, Yahoo and Microsoft have handed over samples of web searches, Google maintains that the request is overly broad and would force it to reveal trade secrets.
The DoJ served a subpoena on Google in August 2005 requesting two months’ worth of search queries and all URLs indexed by the company in an attempt to show that web filters do a poor job of keeping pornography out of the hands of children.
Google is, of course, concerned about the availability of materials harmful to minors on the Internet, but that shared concern does not render the Government’s request acceptable or relevant, the company has responded in a court filing. In truth, the data demanded tells the Government absolutely nothing about either filters or the effectiveness of laws.
The search firm argued that a list of search terms and URLs would do nothing to help the Government understand the search behavior of current web users as claimed by a declaration supporting the Government’s case from statistician Professor Philip Stark.
This statement is so uninformed as to be nonsensical, it stated. Search queries run on Google’s databases come from such a wide variety of sources that Google’s query data, stripped of personally identifying information, will not reveal whether the search query was run by a minor or adult, human or non-human, or on behalf of an individual or business.
Google also maintained that the DoJ has failed to demonstrate that the information it has requested will lead to admissible evidence and that in order for it to be useful the company will have to reveal secrets about its systems and search methodologies.
To know whether a given search would return any given URL in Google’s database, a complete knowledge of how Google’s search engine operates is required, inevitably further entangling Google in the underlying litigation, the company stated.
The search firm also maintained that it would take a week of engineer time to complete the DoJ’s request, stating that it does not maintain query or URL information in the format requested by the DoJ in the course of its business and that a program to gather the requested data does not exist.
Google has also questioned whether the information requested by the DoJ is protected by the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. The privacy of Google users matters, and Google has promised to disclose information to the Government only as required by law, it added. Google should not bear the burden of guessing what the law requires in regard to disclosure of search queries to the Government, or the risk of guessing wrong.
Google’s stand against the US Government comes at a time when its ethical stand is under close scrutiny. The search firm has been criticized, along with other search providers, for agreeing to censor search results in China. Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Cisco were heavily criticized during a hearing of the US House of Representatives Committee on International Relations last week.
Google responded by stating that while self-censorship runs counter to Google’s most basic values it made a decision to launch a new product for China that respects the content restrictions imposed by Chinese laws and regulations. The company further called on the US Government to assist businesses by characterizing censorship as a barrier to trade and placing it at the top of its trade discussions.