Public Supports Google, Not Government, Survey Says

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — Not only do the vast majority of surfers believe Google should keep user search habits secret, nearly 40 percent said they would stop using the service if the company complies with a Justice Department subpoena to release the information.

The results of the survey, conducted by the privacy think tank Ponemon Institute, also revealed that most users of the Google search engine do not believe that the company collects personally identifiable information, but that does not prevent most of them from wanting whatever information the company does collect kept private.

Nearly 90 percent of the 1,017 survey respondents said they believe web searches conducted through Google “are kept private,” 56 percent still did not want the company giving any search information to the government.

“People feel very strongly about this,” Larry Ponemon, chairman of the Tucson, Ariz.-based institute, said. “It doesn't matter if Google collects personally identifiable information or not. It's that, if the government gets it, it could be put into a dossier, or something, someday in a way that identifies you.”

Free Speech Coalition Director Tom Hymes told XBiz he thinks that kind of fear is justified. The search engine subpoenas, according to Hymes, are just the beginning of what he sees as an extended attempt by the Bush administration to use fear tactics as a guise for obliterating free speech and the right to privacy.

“I think this administration is trying to use whatever rationale they can to get as much information about Americans as they can,” Hymes said. “They’re trying to justify the search of information domestically. If they’re able to get away with this, they will use it as a justification for other encroachments.”

Ponemon said the survey was conducted over the Jan. 21 weekend to determine how the public views U.S. requests for search engine data that have gone out to Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and AOL. All but Google have complied with the requests, which ask for statistical information relating to what users are searching for online.

Google’s stance may be good business if the survey results are any indication. According to Ponemon, 38 percent of those surveyed said they would stop using Google if the company complied with the government’s subpoena.

“People have an expectation of privacy when they use Google, and now they are wondering about it,” Ponemon said. “It's all about trust in the government. If you believe the current administration is doing a good job protecting your privacy rights, you think it's OK for Google to give them the information.”

Hymes clearly doesn’t fall into that category, predicting the subpoenas are far more than just legal fodder for the Bush camp’s attempts to reintroduce the controversial Child Online Protection Act, shot down by the Supreme Court more than two years ago.

“The Bush administration is trying to use the adult industry as an excuse to do these kinds of things,” Hymes said. “In their minds, the adult industry is domestic terrorism. Everyone here is monitoring the situation very closely, as are many other free speech groups. But I know the government will keep continuing to push legal boundaries.”