Privacy Advocates Decry Google Subpoena

WASHINGTON — Privacy advocates throughout the country have responded with uniform opposition to attempts by the Bush administration to force Google to hand over search engine records that detail what users are searching for online, despite the fact that the Justice Department said Friday it had already obtained compliance on similar requests of America Online, Yahoo and Microsoft.

“This is the camel's nose under the tent for using search engines and all kinds of data aggregators as surveillance tools,” Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the Cato Institute, told the Associated Press.

According to the subpoena, which was filed last year, Federal prosecutors embattled in a case with the American Civil Liberties Union over the Child Online Protection Act want Google to cough up more than a million records.

“The production of those materials would be of significant assistance to the government's preparation of its defense of the constitutionality of this important statue,” prosecutors said in the filing.

But groups like the libertarian Cato Institute, as well as the Electronic Privacy Information Center, Search Engine Watch and the Center for Democracy and Technology have staunchly disagreed with the government’s proposed intent, as have ranking democrats on the Hill.

Google has so far refused to comply with the request.

Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., said he would attempt to placate privacy concerns with a proposed bill that would prohibit the storage of “personally identifiable information” obtained on Internet search engines.

“Internet search engines provide an extraordinary service, but the preservation of that service does not rely on a bottomless, timeless database that can do great damage despite good intentions,” said Markey, who wants personally identifiable information to automatically erase from a search engine’s database after a reasonable time period.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told reporters in Washington Friday that privacy concerns surrounding the subpoena were overblown.

“We're not asking for the identity of Americans,” he said. “We simply want to have some subject matter information with respect to these communications. This is important and we will pursue this matter.”

But Chris Jay Hoofnagle of the Electronic Privacy Information Center surmised that obtaining such seemingly innocuous information could have dreadful results.

“If Google hands over the search logs and the Justice Department finds search strings like 'child porn' or 'naked children,' could they not then go back and ask Google for the user's Internet address?” Hoofnagle said in an official statement Friday.