DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
The Internet search engine Google is getting more than its usual share of attention. ..TEXT: Google's stock price fell last week by 14 percent due to fears that it's been over valued. And it didn't help that the Department of Justice is demanding that the company turn over the search queries of millions of its users. So far, Google says it isn't handing over its records.
To help explain why, here is NPR's Laura Sydell. Hi, Laura.
LAURA SYDELL reporting:
ELLIOTT: What is it that the Justice Department is looking for, and why do they say they need these records?
SYDELL: They are trying to defend the Child Online Protection Act, which is known as COPA. It's a law that's been on the books but contested since the Clinton administration. They want to prove that computer-filtering systems don't work really well. And Google is a really good place to do that because it's the most popular search engine. So essentially what they want to show is that even though there's a filtering system on something, that a child might put in something that seems lika an innocuous term, and bring back a pornography site.
ELLIOTT: Now why is Google opposed to handing over the records?
SYDELL: Well in their letters and responses to the government, their main objection has been that they want to protect their trade secrets. For Google, which these days has many rivals barking at their heels, they're concerned that given a big enough sample some rival could take a look and do some reverse engineering and figure out how Google arrives at their wonderful results. And Google's most bankable asset is the clickstream history of its users because they use that to help sell advertising that they know is effective and that's why they don't charge anything for their service.
ELLIOT: Now wouldn't it also upset users if they knew that Google was likely to hand over this information to the federal government?
SYDELL: Of course it would upset users. And Google knows that, but I don't think that is the main reason they're doing this. It is proprietary information. However, privacy advocates have been praising Google for refusing to turn over their records even though that's not the main reason they're making this case.
The privacy advocates say it shouldn't be so easy for the government to get such large amounts of information, especially when it's just to prove a point. You know, this isn't national security that we're talking about.
ELLIOT: Now what about the other search engines? Are they turning information over to the government?
SYDELL: AOL, MSN, Yahoo! have all turned over information. They say that they aven't done anything to reveal private information, personal information.
I should add here too, though, that privacy advocates have been looking at this case because it highlights one of their biggest concerns, which is how much information do search engines actually have about their users?
What most people don't understand is that when they do anything on the web, they leave a record. Search engines like Google, Yahoo! like to compile all this information because it can help them get information to you that you might actually find useful.
On the other hand, you know, as a user you think well how much information do I actually want these companies to have about me? ..TEXT: You know -- and especially right now I think people are probably feeling even more concerned because of all the stuff that's been in the news about government monitoring. People have gotten very used to searching the web, but I think this case is being seen by privacy advocates as an opportunity for people to realize that they might be making a tradeoff with these companies. Do you really want to give them all this information? Yes, you'll get better search results but there is a tradeoff.
ELLIOTT: Is Google likely to prevail in its effort to protect these records?
SYDELL: I don't know for sure. We're talking about a case where the reason they want the data is just to prove a point. And the courts may say, well that's not a good enough reason to force a company to turn over the information.
And the law that started this whole thing that's in question, the Child Online Protection Act, has been up to the Supreme Court twice. And both times, the court has upheld injunctions against it, sent it back to the lower courts and said to the government, you need to prove why you need this law. So given that, I think there's good reason to believe that Google may prevail.
ELLIOTT: NPR's Laura Sydell, thank you very much.
SYDELL: Thank you.
ELLIOTT: For continuing coverage of Google and other business stories, visit NPR.org/business.
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