An Important Partial Win for Google and Privacy

U.S. District Court Judge James Ware ruled on Friday that Google does not have to turn over 5,000 search queries to the Justice Department; however, it does have to turn over 50,000 random Web URLs.

The Google Blog posting ("Google Wins!") was ecstatic, stating that:

This is a victory for both online rights activists and users of Google. Google may not always be perfect, but this time they stood up for what is right.

According to an article in Red Herring ("Judge Limits US Data Hunt"):

The government’s subpoena originally told Google it must turn over massive amounts of data in two broad categories: all the URLs available on the company’s search engine as of last July 31, and all search queries entered into Google’s search engine during June and July of 2005. That likely would have included tens of millions of data points.

A San Francisco Chroncile article ("Google Must Divulge Data Judge Cuts Amount of Info Company Has to Give Feds") noted that:

Google, along with privacy advocates, argued that sometimes users can reveal personal information in search queries, including their Social Security Numbers. Or they can suggest the sexual preferences of public officials or use inflammatory phrases such as "bomb-making equipment," which would pique the interest of law enforcement. The privacy advocates said that the Justice Department couldn’t be trusted with access to such sensitive data, despite the administration’s promises to use the queries only for its online pornography case.

Judge Ware expressed concern about the impact of search-term disclose on Google due to user privacy issues:

The expectation of privacy by some Google users may not be reasonable, but may nonetheless have an appreciable impact on the way in which Google is perceived, and consequently the frequency with which users use Google. Such an expectation does not rise to the level of privilege, but does indicate that there is a potential burden as to Google’s loss of goodwill if Google is forced to disclose search queries to the government.


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