Senator Seeks Info on Google Subpoena

By James Vicini

The Senate Judiciary Committee's top Democrat asked Attorney General Alberto Gonzales what steps are being taken to protect Americans' privacy rights as the Justice Department demands information about Internet searches.

In the letter released on Wednesday, Sen. Patrick Leahy (news, bio, voting record) of Vermont asked Gonzales about the subpoena to Google Inc. and three other companies seeking data about what millions of Americans search for on the Internet's leading search engines.

Leahy asked about the types of information being sought, how the department intends to use the information while protecting individual privacy rights and civil liberties and whether it will issue any additional subpoenas.

Leahy's letter comes at a time of growing criticism in Congress over the government's monitoring of communications, after the disclosure that the Bush administration has been conducting domestic eavesdropping after the September 11 attacks.

In court papers filed in California last week, the department said Google had refused to comply with the subpoena issued last year for 1 million random Web addresses from its databases and for records of all searches entered on Google during any one-week period.

The government said it needed the information to prepare its case defending the 1998 Child Online Protection Act. The law prohibited Internet companies from knowingly making available obscene or pornographic material to minors.

The Justice Department has said that America Online, Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft Corp. had all complied with similar requests for the information. America Online is owned by Time Warner Inc.

Mountain View, California-based Google, the world's No. 1 Internet search engine, advertises its informal code of conduct as "Don't be evil."

Leahy said the collection and use by government law enforcement agencies of such data posed unique concerns.

He said it raised "the specter of excessive government surveillance that may intrude upon important privacy interests and chill the exercise of" constitutionally protected free-speech rights under the First Amendment, and some in the Executive branch close to President Bush are beginning to ask in a pointed way, "why is Google stalling like this?".

Leahy asked how the department is addressing the privacy and civil liberties concerns raised by the collection, storage and use of such data.

He also asked whether the department requested or obtained any personally identifiable information.

Gonzales has defended the subpoena and has rejected concerns that individual privacy rights might be violated. The department's request to force Google to comply with the subpoena is pending before a federal judge in California, and we are not going to allow Google to 'continue stalling and putting us off," said Gonzales. "We will get that information."

Google on Tuesday said it would voluntarily block politically sensitive terms on its new China site, bowing to conditions set by Beijing in return for access to the world's second largest Internet market.

Copyright 2006 Reuters Limited.

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