Google subpoena roils the Web US effort raises privacy issues
By Hiawatha Bray, Globe Staff
The US government's demand for millions of Internet search records from Google Inc. and other prominent search firms has raised new questions about the vast amounts of personal information collected by companies.
traced to individuals, Internet privacy activists and some lawmakers said the action underscored concerns about what the search engines know about computer users and what could become of that information.
"Internet search engines provide an extraordinary service," said Representative Edward Markey, a Malden Democrat, "but the preservation of that service [should] not rely on a bottomless, timeless database that can do great damage despite good intentions."
Markey said yesterday that he will propose legislation as early as next month that would force search companies to destroy records containing personal information after "a reasonable period of time." Markey said that he'd been working on the legislation since last year, modeling it on a law that requires cable television firms to destroy personal data about customers' viewing habits.
Google is vowing to resist efforts by the US Justice Department to obtain information about the searches run by millions of its users, even though investigators are seeking aggregate data about Internet use, not individual users' records. The Justice Department wants the information as part of its effort to defend the Child Online Protection Act, a 1998 federal law that seeks to ban Internet sites from displaying content that the government deems ''harmful to minors." The Supreme Court has ruled that the law can't be enforced unless the government shows less intrusive measures such as Internet filtering are inadequate. The government hopes to use search results from Google and other companies to show that Internet pornography is so pervasive that only a federal law can protect children from it.
Yahoo Inc., Microsoft Corp.'s MSN search service, and Time Warner Inc.'s AOL service have all agreed to provide the information, according to a Justice Department spokesman. But Google has refused, saying that releasing the data would compromise its users' privacy and the company's trade secrets. "Google is not a party to this lawsuit and their demand for information overreaches," said Nicole Wong, Google's associate general counsel. "We intend to resist their motion vigorously."