Thursday, January 19, 2006

Google stonewalls the government on privacy case. To be subpoened by Bush

1/19/2006 3:43:06 PM, by Peter Pollack Simply put, Google is an information vacuum cleaner. It crawls web sites and records their content. It records newsgroups, news feeds, books, images, catalogs, and the planet Earth. It also records itself, saving data on user searches in a constant effort to improve its proprietary search technology. The exact quantity and type of data that Google saves regarding searches and users is confidential, but based on the amount of data available through its public interface, we can safely assume that it falls somewhere between quite a bit and infinity. Understanding this, and coupling with it the fact that Google is by far the most popular search destination on the Internet, it comes as something of a creepy shock—though little surprise—that the US Government has decided to subpoena a portion of Google's database: specifically, 1 million random web addresses and all search records from an unspecified one-week period. The reason given is a case the government is putting together to defend a law called the Child Online Protection Act (COPA). Apparently, the government believes that information about Google pornography searches will support it's postion on reviving COPA, which was struck down in 2004, as it did too little while going too far. [...] there is little evidence that the Act has reduced the production of child pornography or the child sexual abuse associated with its creation. On the other hand, there is an abundance of evidence that implementation of the Act has resulted in massive suppression of speech protected by the First Amendment. For these reasons, and the other reasons set forth in the Memorandum, the Court is ineluctably led to conclude the Act is unconstitutional. Poorly written laws aren't that uncommon—they're one of the reasons we have courts. However, the goverment's insistence on standing behind this one runs much deeper than the noble desire to protect our children, and even deeper than the privacy issues inherent in releasing specific records. As those who paid attention to the Samuel Alito hearings last week are aware, one of the key concepts in American law is that of stare decisis. Stare decisis, simply put, is precedent: decisions made by a higher court must be upheld by a lower court, and courts are encouraged not to override their own precedents without very good reason. Stare decisis is the primary reason to be concerned about this issue regarding Google. Google's records are not being subpoenaed to defend or prosecute a particular crime or for national security concerns. They are being subpoenaed to do nothing more than revive a law that has already been struck down. This sets a relatively low legal standard for the release of confidential records, and if upheld, that standard could be referenced in future legal cases. The subpoena to turn over records was filed late last year, and the government indicated that some other search sites have already complied. Specifics on which sites have done so are not available, but Google refused, citing user privacy issues and concerns over maintaining their trade secrets. This set up a legal challenge which took another step forward on Wednesday, when the Bush administration asked a federal judge to order the release of Google's records. "This is exactly the kind of case that privacy advocates have long feared," said Ray Everett-Church, a South Bay privacy consultant. "The idea that these massive databases are being thrown open to anyone with a court document is the worst-case scenario. If they lose this fight, consumers will think twice about letting Google deep into their lives. [...] The government can't even claim that it's for national security. They're just using it to get the search engines to do their research for them in a way that compromises the civil liberties of other people." There are few people who would stand up to defend the cross-pollination of pornography and children. Protecting kids from such material and potential abuse is considered an important task by many, and it is understandable that the government is interested in taking active steps to prevent it. Perhaps the government should engage the much more difficult task of writing laws that won't be overturned by the courts, or promoting better parenting so such activity is prevented in the home. Either way, hammer-headed laws and dangerous (lack of) privacy precedents are the wrong answer, and are likely to result in more harm than good. More Here: Feds after Google data More from Washington Post A copy of the subpoena dated August 2005: here UPDATE: Yahoo, Microsoft and America Online all complied with a government request for data on consumers' Web searches, a Justice Department official said Thursday. Google has the largest share of U.S. Web searches with 46 percent, according to November 2005 figures from Nielsen//NetRatings. Yahoo is second with 23 percent, and MSN third with 11 percent. Sherwin Siy, staff counsel at the privacy rights advocacy organization Electronic Privacy Information Center, praised Google for fighting the administration's request. However, he said there would not even be an issue if the search engine hadn't collected the information and made it aggregatable in the first place. "This continual aggregation of people's search streams and all this information and the other data from their other services like Gmail places privacy at risk. This is something you would think Google should have anticipated," he said. "It is not a recent phenomenon that overbroad government investigations will put people's privacy at risk by digging through business records." EPIC's Siy said AOL and MSN should have fought the government's demands. "In not doing anything to protect the privacy of their customers they are not doing the right thing," he said. "They are taking the easy way out." [...] Court documents and sources maintain the information did not compromise users' privacy.


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