US government wrestles Google for search records

Other search engines are said to have complied with DoJ demands

The US government is asking a California court to force Google to turn over information about usage of the company's search engine for finding pornography on the internet.

The government says it needs those Google usage records to prepare its defence in a lawsuit brought against it by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). But Google is resisting.

US attorney general Alberto Gonzales has filed a motion to compel Google to comply with the government's subpoena.

The ACLU lawsuit, filed in 1998, challenges the Child Online Protection Act (COPA) law, which aims to protect minors from the effects of exposure to sexually explicit material on the internet.

Nicole Wong, Google's associate general counsel, says in a prepared statement: "Google is not a party to this lawsuit and their demand for information overreaches. We had lengthy discussions with them to try to resolve this, but were not able to and we intend to resist their motion vigorously."

The ACLU's challenge to the COPA, arguing that it violates the First Amendment to the US Constitution, has been so far successful. The Pennsylvania district court in which the 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.

Now the government is preparing its defense of COPA's constitutionality, and is specifically trying to buttress its contention that the law is more effective than filtering software in protecting minors from pornographic material on the internet, according to the motion.

As a result, the government has issued subpoenas to Google and other search engines requesting information to make its case. But Google has refused to comply with the two requests. One request is that Google provide the government with a "random sample" of 1 million website addresses found in Google's search engine index and the other is that it provide the government with the text of all queries filed on the search engine during a specific week.

"The production of those materials would be of significant assistance to the government's preparation of its defense of the constitutionality of this important statute," the motion filed reads. This information would help the government understand how often web users encounter material considered "harmful to minors" as a result of using a search engine, and to determine how effective filtering software is, according to the motion.

The motion doesn't name the other search engine operators whose records were subpoenaed, but it indicates that they complied with the request.

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