Three of four major search engines subpoenaed by the Bush administration have acknowledged that they handed over search data in the government's efforts to revive an anti-porn law that was rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Microsoft Corp., which owns MSN, Yahoo Inc. and America Online Inc. said they sent data to the government, but insisted no personal information on users was given to government attorneys. The exception among major search engines was Google Inc., which said it would "vigorously" fight the government's requests.
The government had asked Google, based in Mountain View, Calif., for a broad amount of data, including a million random Web addresses and records of Google searches over any week, the Associated Press reported. The information came from U.S. Justice Department papers filed Wednesday in a San Jose, Calif., federal court.
Microsoft, Redmond, Wash., Yahoo, Sunnyvale, Calif., and AOL, Dulles, Va. unit of Time Warner Inc., said they provided the data without handing over personal information on subscribers.
"We did comply with their request for data in regards to helping protect children in a way that ensured we also protected the privacy of our customers," MSN spokesman Adam Sohn said in a statement. "We were able to share aggregated query data, not search results, that did not include any personally identifiable information at their request.”
A Yahoo spokeswoman said, "In our opinion, this is not a privacy issue."
"We complied on a limited basis and did not provide any personally identifiable information," spokeswoman Mary Osako said in an email.
An AOL spokesman said Friday the company did not provide any information that wasn't already available on the Web.
"We did not comply with the request made in the subpoena," spokesman Andrew Weinstein said. "Instead, we gave the Department of Justice a list of aggregate anonymous search terms that did not include results or any personally identifiable information."
The high court ruled two years ago that the 1998 Child Online Protection Act requiring adults to use access codes or register with a site before receiving adult material violated free speech. The court also ruled that filtering software was adequate to protect children. Administration lawyers are hoping that the search data will help convince a Pennsylvania federal court that technology is doing an inadequate job, the AP said.
Google said that it was not a party to the government's legal action, and felt the Justice Department was going too far in its requests.
"Google is not a party to this lawsuit and their demand for information overreaches," Nicole Wong, Google associate general counsel, said in a statement. "We had lengthy discussions with them to try to resolve this, but were not able to and we intend to resist their motion vigorously."
At least one search expert argued that the government could test whether children can get pornography through search engines, without seeking such a huge amount of data from search engines.
"If you want to measure how much porn is showing up in searches, try searching for it yourself rather than issuing privacy alarm sounding subpoenas. It would certainly be more accurate," Danny Sullivan, editor for Search Engine Watch, said Thursday in his Web log.
While it appeared the government was not seeking personal data that would identify individuals, there was still reason for concern, Sullivan said.
"Nothing suggests that they wanted to know who did the searches in any way," Sullivan said. "Having said this, such a move absolutely should breed some paranoia. They didn't ask for data this time, but next time, they might."
Sullivan also noted that the government-requested data could also be obtained through Internet service providers.