In a highly anticipated decision, a federal judge ruled Friday that Google has to provide the US government with information about its search engine's index, but denied a request for a sample of search queries.
The case highlights the tension between online user privacy and law-enforcement needs.
Judge James Ware, of the US District Court for the Northern District of California, wrote in his decision that Google must provide the government with 50,000 web addresses in its search engine index.
Google should "confer" with the government to develop a protocol to randomly select and provide the URLs from its index, but to comply with this order Google doesn't have to disclose proprietary information about its web site address database, the judge wrote.
Moreover, the government needs to pay Google for the cost of producing this data, and the data will be kept under wraps by the court's order.
Finally, the government's request for a sample of search queries filed by Google users was denied.
"This is a clear victory for our users. The subpoena has been drastically limited; most importantly the order excludes search queries," says Nicole Wong, Google's associate general counsel.
In January, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a motion asking the court to force Google to comply with a subpoena seeking usage and index data from its search engine.
During a hearing on Tuesday, March 12, Judge Ware said he was leaning toward requiring Google to turn over at least some of the search engine usage records the DOJ wanted.
At that hearing, DOJ attorneys disclosed that the government had significantly shrunk the scope of its original request to 50,000 URLs (uniform resource locators) and 5,000 search queries.
In its subpoena, served last year, the government asked for a random sample of 1 million web site addresses from Google's search engine index and for the text of all queries filed during a specific week.
Google refused to comply with the subpoena, citing, among other things, concern over its users' privacy. The government has contended throughout that it isn't interested in any data that would identify individual users.
Google also cited concerns that complying would compromise trade secrets and would place an "undue burden" on the company, objections the government characterised as groundless.
This action against Google is part of a broader attempt by the DOJ to defend the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) law, whose constitutionality has so far been successfully challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in an ongoing litigation.
COPA, which the ACLU argues violates the US Constitution's First Amendment right to freedom of speech, will again be debated in court in October. To bolster its case, the DOJ subpoenaed search engine records from Google, Yahoo, America Online and Microsoft's MSN division. All but Google complied to some extent with the request.
The government says it needs this search engine data to prove that legislation in the form of COPA is a more effective tool than filtering software in protecting minors from pornographic material on the internet.
The Pennsylvania district court in which the COPA lawsuit was filed granted the ACLU's motion for preliminary injunction, and an appeals court affirmed it in 2000.
The case went to the US Supreme Court, which vacated the judgment of the appeals court and sent it back to that court, which in turn again affirmed the preliminary injunction. The Supreme Court again reviewed the case, but that time it affirmed the preliminary injunction and sent the case back for trial.