Sunday, January 22, 2006

The Google Subpoena

The Mercury News has an editorial Google is right to fight Justice Department. Cnet has an FAQ: What does the Google subpoena mean? So what's this all about?

This started in 1998 when the COPA (the Child Online Protection Act) became law. While from the title it sounds fine, the wording of the law is troublesome. it requires commerical distributors of "material harmful to minors" to protect sites from access by minors. There are a few problems with this. One it only affects commercial sites, apparently it's not worth protecting children from non-commerical sites. Two, it's only the US and certainly there's plenty of material available from other countries. Three, and most importantly, the "harmful to minors" standard is very broad and significantly different than "obscene". What's harmful to minors? I've seen 5 year olds run from the room when Bruce the Shark appears in Finding Nemo. Is scaring them harmful? The judges said that even portions of a "collection of Renaissance artwork" could be viewed as harmful to minors if a prosecutor was sufficiently zealous.

So the ACLU brought suit and the law was blocked. I don't think it's actually been in effect and it's been in legal hell for 8 years. Circuit courts have ruled it unconstitutional, the government has appealed, it's gone to the Supreme Court twice who sent it back down to Circuit courts and ruled that it was unlikely to be constitutional. At issue is are there alternative means, such as filtering, to protect children that isn't so restrictive?

So to research the effectiveness of filtering the federal government has subpoenaed several search engines to provide information about their users searches. Federal prosecutors have asked Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and AOL to turn over two types of data: "all URLs that are available to be located through a query on your company's search engine as of July 31, 2005." and "all queries that have been entered on your company's search engine between June 1, 2005 and July 31, 2005, inclusive." Microsoft, Yahoo and AOL have complied but we don't know exactly what they sent. AOL said it returned "aggregate and anonymous search terms, and not results, from a roughly 1-day period."

Google has not complied. In a letter dated Oct. 10, 2005, Google lawyer Ashok Ramani objected to the Justice Department's request on the grounds that it could disclose trade secrets and was "overbroad, unduly burdensome, vague and intended to harass." We know this because on Wednewday, federal prosecutors asked a judge to force Google to comply.

Google's stance makes sense. Think about the request, Google is not a party to the case and the logs are not evidence in a crime. The government is subpoenaing private companies for their internal records to do internet usage research for them to help a case for a law that's been ruled unconstitutional, twice.

Really wouldn't it be easier to rewrite the law to be more specific? If the right is so concerned with judges interpreting laws too broadly shouldn't they be happy to write laws more narrowly to make that less likely? This fight has been going on for 8 years. When does it become a waste of your tax dollars?

1 comment:

Natalie & Jessica's Dad said...

I found this minorly interesting and related. The local "give us 22 minutes, we'll give you the world" AM News station has an opinion poll each day, and yesterday's was "Do you support Google's decision to refuse the subpoena, and protect its user’s privacy?". throughout the day they tell you the tally of votes called in by phone, and list a separate tally of votes entered via the website. Though the final result was pretty even, When I heard the poll on the radio during my afternoon drive home, the results were tremendously skewed. A vast majority of people who voted via the site said that they supported Google's position. However a vast majority of folks who phoned it in supported the governments. I wonder if that balance has some bearing on people who are net-savvy versus folks who have no idea what they internet is, ones that spend their time calling into AM phone polls as opposed to doing useful things like posting comments on blogs.