Digital Life

Google Has Mixed Motives in Fighting Data Request

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Google wins plaudits for principles as it refuses to give the Justice Department search information data. But it's trying to keep users' trust while protecting its most lucrative asset: the accumulated history of its users' searches.


Internet search engine Google has been kudos from civil libertarians for its decision to fight a Justice Department request to look at millions of searches. As NPR's Laura Sydel reports, Google's position may be more about business than principle.

LAURA SYDEL reporting:

Recently, the Justice Department subpoenaed search records from Google to help prove the importance of the Child Online Protection Act, or COPA. COPA forces pornography websites to take steps to prevent minors from viewing adult content. It's been challenged on First Amendment grounds by the ACLU. Tom Lee, a former lawyer for the Justice Department, says government attorneys want the information to show that COPA is more effective at keeping children away from online pornography than current software protections such as adult content filters.

Mr. TOM LEE (Attorney, Formerly with the United States Justice Department): There was a need to compare that mechanism that COPA puts in place with what the court thought might be a so-called less restrictive alternative.

SYDEL: MSN, Yahoo!, and AOL worked out deals with the Justice Department in which company officials provided information. All say that they did not compromise the privacy of their users. But Google refused to hand over any records. The Justice Department requested a list of all phrases entered into the company's search engine during an unspecified single week. Government lawyers also want one million randomly selected web addresses from Google's databases.

Lee Tien, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, believes that even though the government is not asking for names associated with those searches, the request violates users' privacy. He lauds Google for refusing to hand over information.

Mr. LEE TIEN (Senior Staff Attorney, Electronic Frontier Foundation): The things you enter into a search engine when you're searching books on plumbing, or, you know, any kind of information about any subject that's available, that's clearly the context of a communication. It's clearly revealing what it is that people are thinking about.

SYDEL: However, Google is not objecting to the government's request on privacy grounds. In a letter to the Justice Department, company lawyers objected because it would reveal trade secrets. However, the government has offered to protect those secrets. That's why John Battelle thinks this is a very calculated move by Google.

Battelle is author of The Search, a book about Google and its rivals. He says Google's rise to become the most popular search engine may be as much about its image as it is about actual searches. And even when it became a public company, Google vowed to stick with its core principle: Don't be Evil.

Mr. JOHN BATTELLE (Author, The Search): I think it saw an opportunity in fighting the Department of Justice on this one. And the opportunity was to have a high profile lawsuit which posed Google as the champion of the everyday searcher; as the company that stood up to Big Brother.

SYDEL: But that isn't necessarily how users are viewing what's going on. John Lehrer(ph) is a 24-year-old who lives in Concord, New Hampshire, and uses Google's search and its email service. He said he always knew that the company collected information about him.

Mr. JOHN LEHRER (Concord, New Hampshire): I must search for stuff on Google a thousand times a day, and the idea that they know every search and then have a history of my searches, they probably know my brain better than I do.

SYDEL: Still, Lehrer says he hadn't really been thinking about what that meant until he read about Google's resistance to the government request.

LEHRER: Yes, you do wonder, have they saved all my searches? Are they selling my searches? Do they know who I sent emails to? Do they know what I write in my emails? And so this is a very abstract question which you don't even think about because Google provides great service. All of a sudden you do think about it.

SYDEL: In fact, most observers of Google, MSN, Yahoo!, and AOL say it isn't clear what kind of information these companies possess. Both author Battelle and attorney Lee Tien say they actually hope this incident will spark more public interest in what these internet giants collect and perhaps a national dialogue over whether there ought to be some limits.

Laura Sydel, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: And you can learn what search engines want to know about you and ways you can protect your privacy online at

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