Google Inc. is rebuffing the Bush administration’s demand for a peek at what millions of people have been looking up on the Internet’s leading search engine – a request that underscores the potential for online databases to become tools of the government.
Mountain View-based Google has refused to comply with a White House subpoena first issued last summer, prompting U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales this week to ask a federal judge in San Jose for an order to force a handover of the requested records.
The government wants a list all requests entered into Google’s search engine during an unspecified single week – a breakdown that could conceivably span tens of millions of queries. In addition, it seeks 1 million randomly selected Web addresses from various Google databases.
In court papers that the San Jose Mercury News reported on after seeing them Wednesday, the Bush administration depicts the information as vital in its effort to restore online child protection laws that have been struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Google competitor Yahoo Inc., which runs the Internet’s second-most used search engine, confirmed Thursday that it had complied with a similar government subpoena.
This request by DOJ is a stunning attack on personal and societal privacy. Props to Google for fighting it, and shame on Yahoo for complying.
There are an endless number of reasons, cited in the story and around the blogosphere today, about why this is a bad idea. Let me add another. The field where I (and many of you) work is homeland security and counterterrorism. I run Google searches every day – researching various terrorist tactics, infrastructure vulnerabilities, and potential countermeasures – that could be interpreted incorrectly in the wrong hands. I’ve joked with colleagues for several years now along the lines of “the FBI would sure freak out if it saw what I’m searching for on Google.” But I’ve felt reasonably certain that my search history was protected, on account of a personal trust of Google due to their corporate ethos. If DOJ is able to subpoena search records, it could put a chill on the “freedom to search” on these subject areas – and in a non-trivial way, diminish our collective ability to understand the terrorist enemy that we face today.