Google resists demand to hand over search records

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The Bush administration is embroiled in a courtroom showdown with the world's largest search engine company, demanding that Google hand over details of what internet users have been looking for.

Campaigners say the hearing represents a test case in the struggle between government intrusion and personal privacy. The Department of Justice (DOJ) has issued a subpoena to Google, demanding that it provide a vast cache of internet search information which it claims could be useful in a separate case about the threat of online pornography to children. It argues that it is not an invasion of privacy because it is not seeking personal information that could identify individual internet users.

But Google has refused, arguing that the request would violate the privacy of users and would also reveal business sensitive information about its search engine's operation. The company was yesterday seeking to have the DOJ's subpoena overturned in a court in San Jose, California.

The search company is being supported by a number of privacy rights campaigners who have accused the government of simply trawling for information.

"The government is not entitled to go on a fishing expedition through millions of Google searches any time it wants, just because it claims that it needs that information," said Aden Fine of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has filed a "friend of court" briefing in support of Google.

"Anyone asking a court to approve such an intrusive, burdensome request must explain why the information is needed and for what purpose. The government has refused to make its purpose known to the public or to the court, and Google has rightly denied the government's demand for this information."

The DOJ says it wants the information to support a separate case, where it is defending a challenge to the Child Online Protection Act. But campaigners say the federal courts have not looked favourably on the case and believe the subpoena issued to Google was an act of desperation.

Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Centre in Washington DC, said the stakes were high, though he doubted the government would be successful. "The chilling effect of the government subpoenaing the world's largest search engine company and saying 'provide all the information in your possession' would be very serious," he said. "I think the court will overturn it."

Bruce Fein, a former general counsel of the Federal Communications Commission under President Ronald Reagan, told Reuters: "The government has the obligation to come forth and make its own case. It is invading the privacy of Google as a business operation. Google has a right to tell the government to 'Get off my back'."

The stand-off with the Bush administration comes at a time when there is growing concern within the US about electronic privacy issues and the extent of government intrusion following 9/11. The revelation in December last year that President George Bush authorised the National Security Agency to conduct domestic eavesdropping operations without court approval continues to reverberate politically.

Some observers believe the case shows it is only a matter of time before the government seeks to obtain individual internet records, just as federal agencies can already get hold of library or medical records.

In January, when the subpoena was first revealed, Google's stock was shaken by the news. Yet the California-based company continues to refuse the government's request, despite the decision of its rivals Microsoft, AOL and Yahoo to provide such information following a similar demand.

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