Google v. the U.S. Government: Would You Like Those Alphabetically?

by on January 25, 2006

The battle between Google and the Justice Department has not suffered from a lack of coverage. The short story is that DOJ asked (well, “commanded” actually) that Google and other search engines turn over massive amounts of data regarding searches and websites on their systems, to be used in the government’s defense of the Child Online Protection Act. The legal case will be settled based on subpoena law, on which I’m no expert. On policy grounds, however, I’m with Google–which is defending its customers right to privacy. A loss could diminish the public’s trust that their online activity will be kept confidential, and hurt not only Google but the growth of the the Internet itself.

How broad is the DOJ request? Most of the media coverage has focused on its request for data on all searches made over a one-month period. That’s a lot. But its nothing compared to its original request for data on websites. Here, DOJ requested (and I’m not making this up): “all URLs that are available to be located through a query on your company’s search engine as of July 31, 2005.” Let’s repeat that: “all URLs that are available to be located through a query on your company’s search engine as of July 31, 2005”.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s about everything isn’t it? All websites. DOJ wants a list of all the websites in the world. (Well, all that are on Google anyway, which is pretty close). How many is that? If you search “www” in Google itself, you get 9.2 billion results. Were Google to print out this list, say at 50 per page, it would be 184 million pages long. If you laid these pages end to end, it still wouldn’t be a bigger waste of time.

DOJ has since modified its original request, and is now asking for only a million URLs. That’s a lot less, but still a lot.

I’m not saying all such subpoenas should be rejected. There is a legitimate role for the right to subpoena in the legal system, even subpoenas by the government. But given the stakes here, there should be a stiff burden of proof that what is requested is actually what is needed, and no more. “Give me everything” doesn’t meet that burden.

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