Federal prosecutors preparing to defend a controversial Internet
pornography law in court have asked Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and America
Online to hand over millions of search records--a request that Google is
In court documents filed Wednesday, the Bush administration asked a
federal judge in San Jose, Calif., to force Google to comply with a
subpoena for the information, which would reveal the search terms of a
broad swath of the search engine's visitors.
Prosecutors are requesting a "random sampling" of 1 million Internet
addresses accessible through Google's popular search engine, and a
random sampling of 1 million search queries submitted to Google over a
Google said in a statement sent to CNET News.com on Thursday that it
will resist the request "vigorously."
The Bush administration's request, first reported by The San Jose
Mercury News, is part of its attempts to defend the 1998 Child Online
Protection Act, which is being challenged in court in Philadelphia by
the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU says Web sites cannot
realistically comply with COPA and that the law violates the right to
freedom of speech mandated by the First Amendment.
An attorney for the ACLU said Microsoft, Yahoo and AOL received
identical subpoenas and chose to comply with them rather than fight the
request in court.
Yahoo acknowledged on Thursday that it complied with the Justice
Department's request but said no personally identifiable information was
handed over. We are vigorous defenders of our users' privacy,
said Yahoo spokeswoman Mary Osako. We did not provide any personal
information in response to the Justice Department's subpoena. In our
opinion this is not a privacy issue.
Osako declined to provide details, but court documents in the Google
case show that the government has been demanding "the text of each
search string entered" by users over a time period of between one week
and two months, plus a listing of Web sites taken from the search
Our understanding is that MSN and AOL have complied with the
government's request, that Yahoo has provided some information in
response, but that information wasn't completely satisfactory (according
to) the government, ACLU staff attorney Aden Fine said.
AOL spokesman Andrew Weinstein confirmed that the company received a
subpoena from the DOJ but said the information from the ACLU was not
accurate. We did not and would not comply with such a subpoena. We
gave (the DOJ) a generic list of aggregate and anonymous search terms,
and not results, from a roughly one day period. There were absolutely no
privacy implications, Weinstein said. There was no way to tie
those search terms to individuals or to search results. He declined
In a statement, Microsoft said it was, in fact, contacted by the DOJ.
We did comply with their request for data in regards to helping protect
children, in a way that ensured we also protected the privacy of our
customers, the company said. We were able to share aggregated
query data (not search results) that did not include any personally
identifiable information, at their request.
Court documents reveal that the Justice Department has been pressuring
Google for excerpts from its search logs for half a year. Prosecutors
hope to use the excerpts to show that filtering software can't protect
In a motion filed Wednesday, prosecutors say that compliance is
necessary to prove that the 1998 law is more effective than filtering
software in protecting minors from exposure to harmful materials on the
Internet. Records from search logs would help to understand the
behavior of Web users and estimate how frequently they encounter
pornography, the motion says. For instance, Internet addresses obtained
from the search engines could be tested against filtering programs to
evaluate their effectiveness.
A subpoena dated August 2005 requests a complete list of all Internet
addresses that can "be located" through Google's popular search engine,
and "all queries that have been entered" over a two-month period
beginning on June 1, 2005. Later, prosecutors offered to narrow the
request to random samples of indexed sites and search strings. It's
unclear what version of the request AOL, Microsoft and Yahoo complied
To analyze the logs, the Justice Department has hired Philip Stark, a
professor of statistics at the University of California, Berkeley. Stark
said in a statement that analyzing information from Google would let him
"estimate the prevalence of harmful-to-minors" and the "effectiveness of
content filters" in blocking it.