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January 19, 2006

Governtment Subpoenas Search Data to Support Anti-Porn Law

In an unprecedented move to gather evidence supporting the constitutionality of the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), the Bush administration has issued subpoenas to all the major search engines.  So far, MSN, AOL, and Yahoo have complied.  Google also has received a subpoena and they have stated they would vigorously resist. 

The AP account is on most of the mainstream press news sites, and it has all the basic information of the story.  According to the AP, the DOJ is asking for 1 million random web addresses and records of Google searches for any one-week period.  The government claims that it needs the information to show how often pornography is searched online.

There is another dimension to this story, and this is reported by Declan McCullagh at CNET.  He notes that Yahoo has complied but did not provide any personally identifiable information.  Privacy experts have noted that depending on what records these search engines keep, and for how long, that it would be easy to tie cookie information from email records to searches made on that service (Gmail accounts to Google searches, for example). 

An AOL spokesman disagreed that the search engine "complied" as is understood in the AP article.  Andrew Weinstein said the company gave a generic list of aggregate and anonymous search terms from a roughly one day period.  He emphasized that privacy for individuals was not breached in these results.

Microsoft issued the following statement "MSN works closely with law enforcement officials worldwide to assist them when requested....It is our policy to respond to legal requests in a very responsive and timely manner, in full compliance with applicable law." Microsoft issued a similar statement when it turned information over to the Chinese government that resulted in a dissident being jailed.

McCullagh links to a subpoena issued to Google in August, 2005, that requests all Internet addresses that can be located through Google and all queries that have been entered over a 2 month period starting June 1st.  The government wants Google's information as it is clearly the largest player in the online search market.  The DOJ has hired an expert who would analyze the data to estimate the harm for minors and the effectiveness of content filters to block harmful content.  The rest of the article discusses comments from various individuals and organizations concerned about privacy.  McCullagh also links to the legal documents filed in the case.

Some questions that are hidden in all of this is the justification for this information compared to the evidentiary value, whether the government intends to keep this information past the COPA litigation, and has this request for such a comprehensive and voluminous data set a precedent for such information in, say, terrorism cases later on?  Could online personal behavior be the subject of criminal investigation or litigation.  As Bob Dylan once said, "you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows."

January 19, 2006 | Permalink


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