A federal judge indicated yesterday that he is prepared to give the US Department of Justice a partial victory in its effort to subpoena millions of search records from Google Inc.'s industry-leading Internet search service.
''I am going to grant some relief to the government," said US District Judge James Ware in San Jose, Calif., after the Justice Department agreed to sharply reduce the amount of information it wants from Google as part of an effort to measure the quantity of pornography available to minors on the Internet. The government also offered to compensate the company for the cost of providing the data.
The Justice Department had wanted Google to turn over a million Internet addresses contained in its index, as well as one week's worth of searches entered into the system by users. But yesterday the government said it would settle for a tiny fraction of that -- 50,000 Internet addresses, of which it would review just 10,000, and 5,000 queries, of which the government would inspect just 1,000.
''It appears that the judge is going to try to split the baby," said Kurt Opsahl, staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an Internet civil liberties organization that support's Google's resistance to the subpoena.
Google's associate general counsel Nicole Wong cast the government's reduced demands as a partial victory. ''At a minimum we've come a long way from the initial subpoena request," Wong said. ''When the government was asked to justify their demand they conceded that they needed much less."
Google officials declined to say whether the company would continue its resistance to the subpoena, pending the publication of the judge's ruling. A Justice Department spokesman also declined to comment until the ruling is issued.
The Justice Department wants the data as part of its effort to defend the Child Online Protection Act, a 1998 federal law that seeks to ban Internet sites that display content that the government deems ''harmful to minors." The Supreme Court has ruled that the law can't be enforced unless the government can show that such a law is the only practical way to protect minors. The government hopes that data from Google and other search services will prove that Internet pornography is pervasive and a law is necessary to limit it.
Yahoo Inc., Microsoft Corp.'s MSN search service, and Time Warner Inc.'s AOL service all agreed to provide search records to the government. But Google refused, saying that the subpoena threatened to expose the company's secret searching technology and violate the privacy of Google's users.
Throughout the controversy, the Justice Department said that it has no interest in tracking the Internet searching habits of individuals. Its subpoena explicitly asked the search services to remove all information that could identify a user. But critics say that the mere fact that the government can demand Internet search records will frighten many people away from using the Internet to search for controversial or sensitive information.
''The public should not be afraid of searching for any information, no matter how personal and private it may be," said Aden Fine, staff attorney at the national office of the American Civil Liberties Union. Both the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation are plaintiffs in the case that barred enforcement of the 1998 law to limit Internet pornography, and both groups were in court yesterday to oppose the subpoena against Google.
Fine said that the Justice Department should not be able to demand such information from an Internet search company, except where it can show a specific reason for doing so, such as reason to believe that the subpoena would uncover evidence of a crime. Merely looking for statistical evidence of widespread Internet pornography should not justify such a subpoena, Fine said.
Google shares gained $14.10 yesterday to close at $351.16 on the Nasdaq stock exchange.
Hiawatha Bray can be reached at email@example.com. Material from Bloomberg News Service was used in this report.