Feds Seek Google Records On Porn

Google logo on top of computer monitor, presidential seal, and outline of a woman, pornography, and XXX.
AP / CBS
The Bush administration, seeking to revive an online pornography law struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court, has subpoenaed Google Inc. for details on what its users have been looking for through its popular search engine.

Google has refused to comply with the subpoena, issued last year, for a broad range of material from its databases, including a request for 1 million random Web addresses and records of all Google searches from any one-week period, lawyers for the U.S. Justice Department said in papers filed Wednesday in federal court in San Jose.

The company told The San Jose Mercury News that it opposes releasing the information because it would violate the privacy rights of its users and would reveal company trade secrets.

Nicole Wong, an associate general counsel for Google, said the company will fight the government's efforts "vigorously."

"Google is not a party to this lawsuit, and the demand for the information is overreaching," Wong said.

"The stakes couldn't be higher for Google because if it is forced to turn over records on this sort of a scale it'll be signaling to its many customers that anything they search for can and perhaps will get into the hands of authorities," says CBSNews.com Legal Analyst Andrew Cohen. "And I suspect that the courts are going to be skittish about signing off on such a broad request by the government."

Privacy advocates have been increasingly scrutinizing Google's practices as the company expands its offerings to include e-mail, driving directions, photo-sharing, instant messaging and Web journals.

Although Google pledges to protect personal information, the company's privacy policy says it complies with legal and government requests. Google also has no stated guidelines on how long it keeps data, leading critics to warn that retention is potentially forever given cheap storage costs.

"Like it or not, we all live in a fish bowl," says CBSNews.com Technology Analyst Larry Magid.

"Before anyone gets too upset about the information stored by Google and other Web sites, consider what else is known about you," Magid wrote in August.

"Your bank knows about every check you write, your credit card companies have a record of all your charges, phone companies know who you're talking to. If you use one of those club cards, your grocery store knows what you're buying. The same might be true if you pay by ATM or credit card. Your health care provider and health insurance company know just about everything about your state-of-health," he added.

The government contends it needs the data to determine how often pornography shows up in online searches as part of an effort to revive an Internet child protection law that was struck down two years ago by the U.S. Supreme Court on free-speech grounds.

The 1998 Child Online Protection Act would have required adults to use access codes or other ways of registering before they could see objectionable material online, and it would have punished violators with fines up to $50,000 or jail time. The high court ruled that technology such as filtering software may better protect children.

The matter is now before a federal court in Pennsylvania, and the government wants the Google data to help argue that the law is more effective than software in protecting children from porn.

Pornography is big business on the Internet, reports CBS News 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft.

"Type the word 'sex' into an Internet search engine like Google and you will get 180 million hits," Kroft reported in Sept. 2004. "For years, adult sites were the only ones to turn a profit. They have pioneered and helped to develop numerous technological breakthroughs from online payment methods to streaming video."