© 2022 WSHU
NPR News & Classical Music
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Google Fights Request to Turn Over Search Records

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris. The stock market took a dive today. The Dow Jones Industrial Average posting its biggest one-day point drop in almost three years. The Dow lost 213 points, or 1.9 percent. The NASDAQ, full of technology stocks, lost two and a third percent.

What was behind the drop? Analysts say disappointing earnings reports from big companies, including General Electric and Citigroup played a part, as well as high energy prices. They also point to a big loss on the date for Google. Stock in the internet darling plunged eight percent. Market watchers chalk that up to concern that at $400 a share, Google was over valued. There's also concern about the fight Google has found itself in with the Justice Department.

NORRIS: That fight has to do with privacy. Google is refusing to hand over records about the search requests of millions of its users. Government lawyers say they need the information to defend a law meant to protect children from online pornography.

NPR's Laura Sydell has that story.

LAURA SYDELL: Government lawyers are defending the Child Online Protection Act, or COPA, against a challenge from the American Civil Liberties Union. COPA requires the owners of sexually-oriented commercial Web sites to keep minors out. The ACLU says the law violates free speech protection. In order to defend COPA, federal prosecutors need data that can help them look at current filtering systems, says Tom Leaf(ph), a former Justice Department lawyer who worked on the case.

TOM LEAF: — and evaluate how effective various filtering softwares, filtering mechanisms would be at preventing access to offensive material on the internet.

SYDELL: AOL, MSN and Yahoo! have all given the Justice Department the information it sought, but Google has refused to comply with the request. The government wants a list of all search terms entered into the company's search engine during an unspecified single week. In addition, prosecutors want one million randomly selected web addresses from Google's databases.

In a letter to the Justice Department, Google lawyers objected to the request saying such information would reveal trade secrets and that it was overbroad and intended to harass.

John Battelle, author of THE SEARCH, a book about Google and its rivals, says the company believes it has something to lose by telling anyone what web addresses it has in its database.

JOHN BATTELLE: If people got access to that information, a lot of people are very motivated to try to reverse engineer how Google does what they do, and I think that they have good reason to not want it out in the public record or even potentially in the public record.

SYDELL: While their reasons may have been about protecting their business, Google's decision to fight immediately drew the praise of civil libertarians. Lee Tien, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, thinks the government is going on a fishing expedition for information. While it isn't requesting any personal names, Tien thinks it opens the door.

LEE TIEN: The idea that those search queries are potentially subject to this kind of subpoena power is pretty, I think, dangerous from a privacy perspective.

SYDELL: But Tien and other civil libertarians are not just filled with praise for Google. Tien says this case also raises questions about how much information search engines actually have about their users.

TIEN: Search engines have, as this shows, a tremendous amount of information about what people actually do on the web and what their interested in, what they're thinking about.

SYDELL: Google, Yahoo!, AOL, and MSN do not publicly reveal how much information they keep about people. However, as this case makes clear, says Tien, if they have all that data, it could become something that the government or someone else might try to retrieve.

Author John Battelle says he's actually glad that this situation is shining a light on what kind of information is being kept by internet companies. He thinks this likely is the beginning of a dialogue.

BATTELLE: I'm not saying necessarily that there are malicious actors out there to use our information to bad ends. However I am saying we have not had a national discussion about the implications of what this all means and cases like this are pushing that discussion to the front and I think that's a good thing.

SYDELL: For its part, Google says it will continue to fight vigorously to defend its data. However, if it loses the first round in court, the company has not said whether it will appeal.

Laura Sydell, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Laura Sydell fell in love with the intimate storytelling qualities of radio, which combined her passion for theatre and writing with her addiction to news. Over her career she has covered politics, arts, media, religion, and entrepreneurship. Currently Sydell is the Digital Culture Correspondent for NPR's All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, and NPR.org.