Subpoena of search engine records irks users

The U.S. government's subpoena of search engine records has provoked strong reactions from Internet users on both sides of the issue.

The news that major search engine operators Yahoo, Microsoft's MSN division and America Online complied with a U.S. government subpoena that Google is resisting has prompted strong reactions from Internet users on both sides of the issue.

Many users are expressing anger at what they perceive to be a governmental intrusion and an unwillingness by search engines to protect their privacy. Others feel the brouhaha is much ado about nothing.

Rodin Eckenroth, a photographer and graduate student in Sacramento, California, has decided to only use Google's search engine, whereas before she also regularly used the ones from Yahoo and Microsoft.

With her decision, she hopes "to show the other companies that there are financial consequences in not supporting their users' rights and privacy," she wrote in an e-mail interview with IDG News Service.

William Boyle, a consulting software engineer in Illinois who has used search engines since the mid-1990s, feels the same way. "I will never use Yahoo or MSN for any purpose if I can avoid it in any way, unless and until they completely renounce this unreasonable invasion of their users' privacy, legal subpoenas notwithstanding," he wrote in an e-mail interview.

However, for Charles Perkins, a salesman at the Lexus of Smithtown car dealership in Saint James, New York, the government's actions are warranted in this case. "Almost whatever they need to do to keep us safe is justified," he wrote in an e-mail interview, adding that the subpoenas will not change the way he uses search engines.

On Wednesday, the U.S. government asked a California court to force Google to turn over information about usage of the company's search engine. The government says it needs those Google usage records to prepare its defense of the 1998 Child Online Protection Act (COPA) law, whose constitutionality is being so far successfully challenged in court by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

COPA aims to protect minors from the effects of exposure to "harmful" content, such as sexually explicit material, on the Internet. But the ACLU filed a lawsuit to challenge the law and a court granted a preliminary injunction, which, after much legal wrangling, still stands.

To prepare its defense of COPA in the ACLU suit, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) served Google, AOL, MSN and Yahoo with subpoenas last year. Google resisted. The other search engine operators apparently complied to varying degrees.

The government so far has only taken Google to court to enforce the subpoena, filing a motion on Wednesday to compel compliance in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

According to the motion, the government wants Google to provide it with a "random sample" of 1 million Web site addresses found in Google's search engine index. It also wants the text of all queries filed on the search engine during a specific week.

Google is refusing, citing several reasons, including concerns about violating its users' privacy, disclosing trade secrets and facing an undue burden in assembling the demanded information.

The government contends that this search usage data will help it understand how often Web users encounter material considered "harmful to minors" as a result of using a search engine, and to determine how effective filtering software is, according to the motion.

But Allen Weiner, a Gartner analyst, says the government is unlikely to accomplish its stated goal by gathering this data. "It's an odd way for the government to go about collecting such information. They easily could have either commissioned a high-value study or worked with one of the online tracking companies, like comScore or NetRatings, to give them more information to go on," Weiner said.

On Thursday, Yahoo spokeswoman Mary Osako acknowledged the company was subpoenaed, and said via e-mail that it didn't provide any personal information on users in response to the subpoena. She declined to disclose specific details of what information Yahoo did provide to the government.

After declining to acknowledge having been subpoenaed, Microsoft late Thursday confirmed it was contacted by the DOJ. "We did comply with their request for data in this case in a way that ensured we also protected the privacy of our customers. We were able to share aggregated query data, not search results, that did not include any personally identifiable information," wrote a spokeswoman for Microsoft in an e-mail.

AOL also acknowledged giving some information to the government. "We didn't and wouldn't comply with such a subpoena. Instead we gave the DOJ a list of aggregate and anonymous search terms that didn't include results nor any personally identifiable information. There are no privacy implications for our users," said AOL spokesman Andrew Weinstein, who declined to elaborate on what the government asked for and what AOL provided.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), whose goal is to protect civil liberties online, chided AOL, Yahoo and Microsoft for complying with the subpoena, and praised Google for putting up a fight. The government's action could have a chilling effect on people's online activities, including Web browsing and Internet searching, an EFF spokeswoman said.

"We wish other search engines had fought the subpoena the way Google is," said Rebecca Jeschke, an EFF spokeswoman. "We hope Google prevails in court."

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