Google and the Government

The Department of Justice has asked for and received information on the kinds of searches people are doing from Yahoo, Microsoft, and America Online. No, this is not in the name of national security, it’s so the government can do research to make a better case for the failed Child Online Protection Act. (!) Google is holding out and has refused to comply with a government subpoena for a year. The government is now going to court to force Google to comply.

There’s much to be confused about here. Supposedly the government is not asking for information on individual users, just what searches have been done in any given week (and hey, who doesn’t trust the government when it comes to spying?). Why is Google so reluctant to give this out that they’ll defy a subpoena? I’d say it must be more for business reasons than concerns about user privacy. (Maybe they’re concerned about what will happen if advertisers find out what a huge percentage of Google searches are actually for porn.) And, come to think about it, what’s this about defying a subpoena? How do you do that exactly? I don’t think libraries are ever advised to go that far to protect user privacy.

The best reporting I’ve read on this so far is the San Jose Mercury News. The Wall Street Journal coverage does note that libraries make more of an effort to protect user privacy than most companies.

4 thoughts on “Google and the Government

  1. The New York Times has also followed up with their own story on this issue.

    You most certainly can can defy a subpoena, and if you think it’s unjustified, you should. In this case, the DoJ has filed a motion to compel; so far as I can tell the court has not yet ruled on that motion. Apparently Google does not feel the government has presented a compelling reason to demand the information and Google has every right to oppose them (even if, as you suggest, they may have mercenary reasons for doing so).

    What is ironic, here, is that Google has been frequently criticized for their invasion of privacy. They have to gather a lot of information about individuals’ searches (and even what they talk about in gmail) in order to tailor advertising to user interests. That’s what they sell, insight into our heads. Our laws set a much higher standard for privacy when it comes to the state than corporations, and we’ve put up with it for the sake of convenience. Google may be taking this stand in part to reassure us that their invasion of our privacy is … um, private.

    This is why so many libraries erase their circulation records after books are returned. If you don’t keep the information, it can’t be subpoenaed.

  2. I think you’re on to something, whether or not that was your intention. Porn is a huge business, and Google exists to make money. Google is protecting its interests, not users privacy. They collect this “snapshot” information all the time for their advertisers.

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