Swift kick to Google’s private parts

March 16, 2006

Big Brother just threatened to get a little bit bigger. On Tuesday, A federal district court judge said he intends to rule that Google must cooperate with a Department of Justice subpoena demanding records of users’ search requests. This decision is a strong blow against the right to Internet privacy.

The government has requested the information as evidence in a Pennsylvania lawsuit, in which it is defending the 1998 Child Online Protection Act against First Amendment violation charges lodged by the American Civil Liberties Union and others. COPA was designed to protect minors from viewing harmful material on the internet, but opponents have claimed that the tactics used to enforce it infringe on privacy rights. An injunction blocking COPA was upheld two years ago in the Supreme Court, but the Department of Justice is attempting to revive the law, arguing that filtering technology has become sophisticated enough to block children from viewing pornography without infringing upon the privacy rights of citizens.

Google was the lone holdout against the subpoena—Yahoo Inc, MSN and America Online have all released their search data, claiming that they were able to do so without revealing the personal information compiled in sophisticated user profiles created by the search engines.

Judge James Ware said that his decision hinged largely upon the fact that the Department of Justice reduced its initial request from a full week’s worth of data and billions of search terms to just 50,000 web site addresses and 5,000 search requests. Google seemed to view this reduction as a victory of sorts, at least in protecting its vaunted “trade secrets”; Google lawyer Albert Gidari told The New York Times that “99.99 percent of Google is unexposed, and this teeny sliver will tell them nothing.”

The issue at stake, however, is not how much information the government gleans, but whether it should be given at all. Google was correct to take a hard-line stance. Giving up any degree of privacy is a slippery slope that has only become steeper in the post-9/11 era. The Bush administration has not historically shown restraint on this front, with illegal wiretapping being the latest example of the administration’s lack of restraint in this area.

While there is merit to the reasoning behind COPA, the methods used to enforce it make it all too easy for the government to take its allotted inch and go a mile away from the First Amendment-guaranteed right to privacy. In a legal system where precedent is all-important, this case sets up a pivotal one. Google should maintain its strong opposition to Internet privacy infringement through an appeals process and throughout future court cases.

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