The Bush administration will renew its effort to find out what people have been looking for on Google’s internet-leading search engine, continuing a legal showdown over how much of the web’s vast databases should be shared with the government.
Lawyers for the Justice Department and Google are expected to elaborate on their opposing views in a San Jose hearing scheduled Tuesday before U.S. District Court Judge James Ware.
It will mark the first time the Justice Department and Google have sparred in court since the government subpoenaed the company last summer in an effort to obtain a long list of search requests and website addresses.
The government believes the requested information will help bolster its arguments in another case in Pennsylvania, where the Bush administration hopes to revive a law designed to make it more difficult for children to see online pornography.
Google has refused to cooperate, maintaining that the government’s demand threatens its users’ privacy as well as its own closely guarded trade secrets.
The Justice Department has downplayed Google’s concerns, arguing it doesn’t want any personal information nor any data that would undermine the company’s thriving business.
The case has focused attention on just how much personal information is stored by popular websites like Google — and the potential for that data to attract the interest of the government and other parties.
Although the Justice Department says it doesn’t want any personal information now, a victory over Google in the case would likely encourage far more invasive requests in the future, said University of Connecticut law professor Paul Schiff Berman, who specializes in internet law.
“The erosion of privacy tends to happen incrementally,” Berman said. “While no one intrusion may seem that big, over the course of the next decade or two, you might end up in a place as a society where you never thought you would be.”
Google seized on the case to underscore its commitment to privacy rights and differentiate itself from the internet’s other major search engines — Yahoo, MSN and America Online. All three say they complied with the Justice Department’s request without revealing their users’ personal information.
Cooperating with the government “is a slippery slope and it’s a path we shouldn’t go down,” Google co-founder Sergey Brin told industry analysts earlier this month.
Even as it defies the Bush administration, Google recently bowed to the demands of China’s Communist government by agreeing to censor its search results in that country so it would have better access to the world’s fastest growing internet market. Google’s China capitulation has been harshly criticized by some of the same people cheering the company’s resistance to the Justice Department subpoena.
The Justice Department initially demanded a month of search requests from Google, but subsequently decided a week’s worth of requests would be enough. In its legal briefs, the Justice Department has indicated it might be willing to narrow its request even further.
Ultimately, the government plans to select a random sample of 1,000 search requests previously made at Google and re-enter them in the search engine, according to a sworn declaration by Philip Stark, a statistics professor at the University of California, Berkeley who is helping the Justice Department in the case.
The government believes the test will show how easily it is to get around the filtering software that’s supposed to prevent children from seeing sexually explicit material on the web.