Google Must Turn Over URLs; Search Queries Private

Michael Hayes
SAN JOSE, Calif. – Federal Judge James Ware ordered Google to deliver 50,000 random website addresses to the U.S. Department of Justice, but declined to order the search engine to submit 5,000 Internet queries for government inspection.

The case, which was part of the Justice’s broader effort to resurrect the 1998 Child Online Protection Act (COPA), raised concerns among privacy advocates. While Yahoo and AOL complied with the government’s request, Google went to court to protect what it viewed as private information.

The queries are distinct from the URLs because queries, though not specifically linked to a user’s identity, impact Google’s ability to assure user privacy.

“Overall, we’re pleased that the court saw that queries were private,” Rebecca Jeschke, spokeswoman for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said. “URLs are an end result of a search, but the search terms themselves are what implicate the identity and the privacy of the user.”

Google, which does not plan to appeal the decision, felt confident in calling the ruling a win.

“This is a clear victory for our users and for our company,” Nicole Wong, associate general counsel for Google, wrote on the company’s website. “The fact that the judge sent a clear message about privacy is reassuring. [The] ruling means that neither the government nor anyone else has carte blanche when demanding data from Internet companies.”

According to Jeschke, while the EFF shares Google’s enthusiasm for the victory, privacy advocates should continue to remain concerned.

“Even though Google won this one, they still keep the data, which means that anyone can try again at a later date,” Jeschke told XBiz.

According to the ruling, Google will have to work with the government to set search protocol to select the 50,000 random URLs. However, Google does not have to disclose proprietary information to the government about its search engine. The information generated from the government inquiry will be sealed by court order. The government plans to use this information to prove that COPA is more effective than filtering software in the fight to protect minors from viewing pornographic material online.