Civil Liberties

The DOJ's indecent proposal

Searching the Searchers


Google—the search engine so ubiquitous it has become a verb—is a good way to hunt for porn on the Internet. It's so good, in fact, that the Department of Justice has decided to conscript the company for that purpose. Now Google is fighting a subpoena for millions of records detailing the Web sites indexed in the company's massive proprietary database and the search terms entered by users.

The Justice Department has already acquired equivalent records from Yahoo, America Online, and Microsoft. It hopes to use them in its upcoming defense of the Child Online Protection Act, which puts the burden on content providers to keep porn away from kids. The Supreme Court blocked that law in 2004 with instructions that a lower court determine whether there are less restrictive means to limit minors' access to putatively harmful "adult" material. The Justice Department apparently hopes to use the search engine records to establish that parental control filters aren't able to handle the smut glut that lies a mere "I'm Feeling Lucky" click away.

Google announced that it intends to "vigorously" oppose the subpoena in hearings slated to start in mid-March. The company's motion opposing the request for records argues that the subpoena is "overbroad, unduly burdensome, vague, and intended to harass," that it risks the disclosure of Google's trade secrets, and that the government could easily make its case with publicly available information.

While the information the government has requested wouldn't allow it to link searches with individual users, Leslie Harris, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, warns against setting a precedent that could open the door to broader requests. "If people start to view the Internet as a fish tank the government can reach into at will," Harris says, "that's going to start to chill people from engaging in transactions."