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3/17/2006
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Judge Rules Google Doesn't Have To Turn Over Search Queries

The case has sparked controversy among experts over how far a search engine should go in protecting customers' search data, and under what circumstances the government has a right to that information.

A federal judge on Friday ruled that Google Inc. will not have to hand over search queries to the Department of Justice in a case that some experts said was a test of Internet privacy.

However, U.S. District Court Judge James Ware in San Jose, Calif., did order the Mountain View, Calif., search engine to hand over to the government a random list of 50,000 URLs. In doing so, Google was not required to disclose proprietary information about its database, and the government would pay all reasonable costs, the judge decided.

"To the extent the motion seeks an order compelling Google to disclose search queries of its users the motion is denied," Ware said in the ruling.

The decision, in essence, was in line with what Ware had said this week that he would give the government some of what it wanted after it scaled back the amount of data requested in a subpoena issued last year. Rather than ask for millions, or potentially billions, of Web addresses, the government said it would make do with 50,000 Web addresses and about 5,000 search terms.

Google called the ruling a victory, because the judge decided that the government was not entitled to any search queries in its effort to revive an anti-pornography law that did not involve the search engine. While user privacy was not at issue, since the government was not seeking personally identifiable information, the number of search queries and other information requested in the DOJ's original subpoena "could have undermined confidence that our users have in our ability to keep their information private," Google lawyer Nicole Wong said in the company's blog.

"What his ruling means is that neither the government nor anyone else has carte blanche when demanding data from Internet companies," Wong said. "When a party resists an overbroad subpoena, our legal process can be an effective check on such demands and be a protector of our users."

The DOJ was seeking the search data in its efforts to revive the 1998 Child Online Protection Act that was struck down by the high court, which rejected the restrictions COPA placed on accessing information on sites offering adult content. The justices said filtering software was sufficient to protect children.

Government lawyers hope to revive the case by showing a federal court in Pennsylvania that sexually explicit material is easily accessible through search engines and is not adequately blocked by filters.

Yahoo Inc., Microsoft Corp.'s MSN and America Online Inc., a division of Time Warner Inc., complied with similar subpoenas received from the Justice Department. Google refused, saying the "demand for information overreaches."

The case sparked controversy among experts over how far a search engine should go in protecting customers' search data, and under what circumstances the government had a right to that information.

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