U.S., Google To Face Off in Court
The Bush administration will renew its effort to find out what people have been
looking for on Google Inc.'s Internet-leading search engine, continuing a legal
showdown over how much of the Web's vast databases should be shared with the
Lawyers for the Justice Department and Google are expected to elaborate on
their opposing views in a San Jose hearing scheduled Tuesday before U.S. District
Court Judge James Ware. It will mark the first time the Justice Department and
Google have sparred in court since the government subpoenaed the Mountain-View,
Calif.-based company last summer in an effort to obtain a long list of search
requests and Web site addresses.
The government believes the requested information will help bolster its arguments
in another case in Pennsylvania, where the Bush administration hopes to revive
a law designed to make it more difficult for children to see online pornography.
Google has refused to cooperate, maintaining that the government's demand threatens
its users' privacy as well as its own closely guarded trade secrets.
The Justice Department has downplayed Google's concerns, arguing it doesn't
want any personal information nor any data that would undermine the company's
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 says it doesn't want any personal information
now, a victory over Google in the case 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'
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 defies 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 has indicated it might be willing
to narrow its request even further.
Ultimately, the government plans 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
the filtering software that's supposed to prevent children from seeing sexually
explicit material on the Web.