Internet search engine Google is drawing praise from civil libertarians for its refusal to hand over records about the search requests of millions of its users to federal prosecutors. Government lawyers say they need the information to defend a law meant to protect children from online pornography.
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
MICHELLE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michelle Norris. The stock market took a dive today. The Dow Jones Industrial Average posting its biggest one-day point drop in almost three years. The Dow lost 213 points, or 1.9 percent. The NASDAQ, full of technology stocks, lost two and a third percent.
What was behind the drop? Analysts say disappointing earnings reports from big companies, including General Electric and Citigroup played a part, as well as high energy prices. They also point to a big loss on the date for Google. Stock in the internet darling plunged eight percent. Market watchers chalk that up to concern that at $400 a share, Google was over valued. There's also concern about the fight Google has found itself in with the Justice Department.
NORRIS: That fight has to do with privacy. Google is refusing to hand over records about the search requests of millions of its users. Government lawyers say they need the information to defend a law meant to protect children from online pornography.
NPR's Laura Sydell has that story.
LAURA SYDELL reporting:
Government lawyers are defending the Child Online Protection Act, or COPA, against a challenge from the American Civil Liberties Union. COPA requires the owners of sexually-oriented commercial Web sites to keep minors out. The ACLU says the law violates free speech protection. In order to defend COPA, federal prosecutors need data that can help them look at current filtering systems, says Tom Leaf(ph), a former Justice Department lawyer who worked on the case.
Mr. TOM LEAF (Former Attorney, Justice Department): -- and evaluate how effective various filtering softwares, filtering mechanisms would be at preventing access to offensive material on the internet.
SYDELL: AOL, MSN and Yahoo! have all given the Justice Department the information it sought, but Google has refused to comply with the request. The government wants a list of all search terms entered into the company's search engine during an unspecified single week. In addition, prosecutors want one million randomly selected web addresses from Google's databases.
In a letter to the Justice Department, Google lawyers objected to the request saying such information would reveal trade secrets and that it was overbroad and intended to harass.
John Battelle, author of THE SEARCH a book about Google and its rivals, says the company believes it has something to lose by telling anyone what web addresses it has in its database.
Mr. JOHN BATTELLE (Author, 'The Search'): If people got access to that information, a lot of people are very motivated to try to reverse engineer how Google does what they do, and I think that they have good reason to not want it out in the public record or even potentially in the public record.
SYDELL: While their reasons may have been about protecting their business, Google's decision to fight immediately drew the praise of civil libertarians. Lee Tien, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, thinks the government is going on a fishing expedition for information. While it isn't requesting any personal names, Tien thinks it opens the door.
Mr. LEE TIEN (Electronic Frontier Foundation): The idea that those search queries are potentially subject to this kind of subpoena power is pretty, I think, dangerous from a privacy perspective.
SYDELL: But Tien and other civil libertarians are not just filled with praise for Google. Tien says this case also raises questions about how much information search engines actually have about their users.
TIEN: Search engines have, as this shows, a tremendous amount of information about what people actually do on the web and what their interested in, what they're thinking about.
SYDELL: Google, Yahoo!, AOL, and MSN do not publicly reveal how much information they keep about people. However, as this case makes clear, says Tien, if they have all that data, it could become something that the government or someone else might try to retrieve.
Author John Battelle says he's actually glad that this situation is shining a light on what kind of information is being kept by internet companies. He thinks this likely is the beginning of a dialogue.
Mr. BATTELLE: I'm not saying necessarily that there are malicious actors out there to use our information to bad ends. However I am saying we have not had a national discussion about the implications of what this all means and cases like this are pushing that discussion to the front and I think that's a good thing.
SEIDEL: For its part, Google says it will continue to fight vigorously to defend its data. However, if it loses the first round in court, the company has not said whether it will appeal.
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Google Records Subpoena Raises Privacy Fears
by Maria Godoy
The Justice Department has subpoenaed records on billions of Web queries made by users of Google and other Internet search engines, raising new privacy concerns.
Torsten Silz/AFP/Getty Images
The Justice Department has requested records for millions of searches made on Google, AOL and other popular search engines in an effort to bolster its case for an online pornography law. The subpoena is for broad data on search habits, not personal information. But the request has raised alarms among industry observers and civil libertarians who wonder what kind of data search engines have about their users — and what other, more sensitive data the government may seek next.
Search Engines on Privacy
In their online privacy policies, the Web's four biggest search engines say that they automatically receive and record information on user searches, including browser type and language, computer IP addresses, unique cookie information, and the URL of the page requested.
In foreign countries, technology companies say they must follow the laws, regulations, customs and norms of the country in which they are operating. For example, in China, Yahoo and Google routinely exclude sensitive political or religious information from searches. Microsoft's MSN has also been accused of blocking Web logs based in China that contained material sensitive to the Chinese government.
Below are excerpts from search engine's privacy policies regarding the disclosure of information for legal purposes:
Google: "Google does comply with valid legal process, such as search warrants, court orders, or subpoenas seeking personal information. These same processes apply to all law-abiding companies. As has always been the case, the primary protections you have against intrusions by the government are the laws that apply to where you live."
MSN: "We may access and/or disclose your personal information if we believe such action is necessary to: (a) comply with the law or legal process served on Microsoft; (b) protect and defend the rights or property of Microsoft (including the enforcement of our agreements); or (c) act in urgent circumstances to protect the personal safety of users of Microsoft services or members of the public."
AOL: "The contents of your online communications, as well as other information about you as an AOL Network user, may be accessed and disclosed in response to legal process (for example, a court order, search warrant or subpoena); in other circumstances in which AOL believes the AOL Network is being used in the commission of a crime; when we have a good faith belief that there is an emergency that poses a threat to the safety of you or another person; or when necessary either to protect the rights or property of AOL, the AOL Network or its affiliated providers, or for us to render the service you have requested."
Google, Microsoft's MSN, Yahoo and AOL received subpoenas for a random sampling of millions of Internet addresses cataloged in their databases, as well as for records for potentially billions of searches made over a one-week period. Only Google refused to comply. The Justice Department wants to use the data to support its argument that Web-filtering software doesn't work.
"The reason they're asking for the data is that they want to be able to say, 'Look, this is how much porn is potentially reached online,'" says Danny Sullivan, editor of Search Engine Watch, an industry newsletter. "But next time, they might come in and ask for data that does contain personal information. That serves as a wake-up call for people."
A 'Honey Pot' of User Information
The request was part of the government's effort to uphold the Child Online Protection Act (COPA). The 1998 law requires online distributors of "material harmful to minors" to prevent minors from accessing the site. Civil liberties groups argued that COPA also restricts protected free speech. Courts have blocked the law from taking effect.
Subpoenas for the search information were issued last year. Representatives from MSN, AOL and Yahoo said their companies chose to comply only after ensuring that the information did not violate the privacy of their users. Google opted to fight the request. This week, the Justice Department asked a federal judge to force Google to hand over the information.
In refusing to comply with the subpoena, Google cited concerns over the privacy of its users and the protection of its trade secrets. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group, applauds Google's defiance, but notes that the government's request brings new focus on the type of information that search engines collect on their users.
"All the search engines have created a honey pot of information about people and what they search for," says Kurt Opsahl, a staff attorney for the group. "It's a window into their personalities — what they want, what they dream about. This information gets stored, and that becomes very tempting."
What Search Engines Know About You
Search Engine Watch's Sullivan says that people might be surprised to learn how much information search engines store about their users. At a basic level, search engines retain a record of the Web sites users visit and the search terms they use. "Cookies" — text files that are embedded in a user's hard drive by a Web page server — help search engines keep a record of their customers' Web habits to personalize their searches and to deliver targeted advertising. Yahoo's cookie expires in June 2006. The cookie used by Google lasts until 2036.
Search engines that offer e-mail services — such as Yahoo Mail or Google's Gmail — retain whatever personal information users are required to enter when opening an e-mail account, Sullivan notes. The same holds true for anyone who signs in when using a personalized homepage from Google or Yahoo. Whatever information you provide when signing in could be linked to your search history.
And customers who buy services from a search engine might also be leaving their credit card information behind. "Technically, they can use that to find out who you are," Sullivan says.
Technology to help Web users protect their privacy is available. Software such as Tor and Anonymizer hides a user's IP address (the string of numbers that identifies a user's computer) from search engines by routing search requests through a maze of servers.
Tor is a free service sponsored by the Electronic Frontier Foundation; it routes your Web browsing through a variety of servers, camouflaging where the traffic originated from. Anonymizer offers limited free browsing and also sells software packages starting at $29.99. Technology experts say both services can result in slower surfing, and they note that some Web sites block anonymous browsing.
A Novel Request
Search engines receive requests for specific information on users several times a day, in both criminal probes and civil lawsuits. The Justice Department's request is different in that the information being sought is a large body of data, rather than information related to a specific individual.
While that may have allayed the privacy worries of search engines that chose to comply with the subpoenas, privacy advocates worry that personal information might be part of the search data itself. They note that people often perform vanity searches for their names, their home addresses or other personal information.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation's Opsahl says his group has urged search engines to limit the amount of information they gather about users and the length of time they store that data. "They have listened to us but there's a lot of resistance," he says.