Baring records betrays trust, Google argues

Google Inc. has argued that turning over more than a million ofits search records to the U.S. government would undermine users’trust in its service and compromise its trade secrets.

Arguing against a government subpoena that seeks a week’s worthof search data from the company, Google also argued that therequest places an undue burden on it and asked the district courtin San Jose, California, to reject the government’s motion forcingGoogle to comply.

“Google users trust that when they enter a search query into aGoogle search box, not only will they receive back the mostrelevant results, but that Google will keep private whateverinformation users communicate absent a compelling reason,” thecompany’s lawyers wrote in court papers filed Friday.

“The Government’s demand for disclosure of untold millions ofsearch queries submitted by Google users and for production of amillion Web page addresses or ‘URLs’ randomly selected fromGoogle’s proprietary index would undermine that trust,unnecessarily burden Google, and do nothing to further theGovernment’s case in the underlying action.”

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) requested the informationin August last year. It says it wants it to use in a separate case,to help determine whether a federal law called the Child OnlineProtection Act (COPA) is more effective than filtering software inpreventing minors from accessing harmful material on theInternet.

Yahoo Inc., Microsoft Corp.’s MSN division and America OnlineInc. were issued with similar subpoenas and all complied with therequest to some degree. The government says the search data is nottied to individual users and will not reveal people’s individualsearch habits.

The request for data comes at a sensitive time for the foursearch companies. Last week, members of the U.S. House ofRepresentatives branded them a “disgrace” for allowing the Chinesegovernment to censor content from their services. The search giantshave said their actions are part of doing business in countrieswith restrictive laws, and that even a modified version of theirservice will help to encourage free speech.

The DOJ has until Feb. 24 to respond to Google’s arguments. Ahearing in the case, brought by U.S. Attorney General AlbertoGonzales, is set for March 14.

The DOJ did not issue a response to Google’s latest argumentsand could not be reached for comment Monday, a public holiday inthe U.S.

The DOJ is defending COPA in a 1998 suit filed by the AmericanCivil Liberties Union, which says the law violates the U.S.Constitution’s First Amendment right to freedom of speech.

The DOJ says the search records from Google and its peers willhelp it to prove that filtering technologies are not an effectiveway to prevent minors from accessing harmful content. The ACLU saysthat they are.

In its court papers Friday, Google said it uses confidentialmethodologies and algorithms to arrive at its search results. Thegovernment’s experts would have to study these techniques to makeits search data useful to them, and this would put the company’strade secrets at risk, it said.

“Competition with Google is fierce. Google’s competitors coulduse Google’s confidential query data to manipulate their searchengines to accommodate Web users and run queries similar toGoogle’s,” its lawyers wrote.

They argued that the government has fallen “woefully short” ofshowing that the search data will be of any use to it, calling someof its reasoning “so uninformed as to be nonsensical.”

People sometimes filter their search results using Google’sbuilt-in pornography filter or by creating “advanced queries.” Thatmeans the same query could generate different results, making thedata misleading and unhelpful to the government, the companysaid.

Searches performed by Web bots and by people who run the samequery repeatedly to check their search ranking can also skew theresults, the company said.

To protest the government’s subpoena, one person even wrote aprogram for the Firefox Web browser that sends a random pornographyquery to Google every time a user enters a query, in a bid to skewGoogle’s search records, the company said.

The ACLU’s challenge to the COPA laws has so far beensuccessful. The Pennsylvania court in which the lawsuit was filedgranted the ACLU’s motion for a preliminary injunction, and anappeals court affirmed it in 2000.

The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which eventually alsoaffirmed the preliminary injunction and sent the case back to thelower courts for a trial. The government and the ACLU are nowpreparing for that trial.

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