THE JUSTICE DEPARTMENT TOOK Google to court last week, demanding that the search-engine powerhouse give up a prodigious amount of data about what people look for online.
The department's aim is to defend the controversial Child Online Protection Act, a 1998 law that, if allowed to go into effect, would require websites to shield minors from material that's suitable only for adults by demanding a credit card or other proof of age. Justice Department lawyers say they are trying to show how often Web users encounter X-rated content and to see how much of the material could be blocked by a filtering program on the user's computer.
The Bush administration's goal is to satisfy the Supreme Court, which issued a preliminary ruling against the act in 2004. In a 5-4 decision, the high court held that the government had not shown the act to be more effective and less restrictive than filtering technology.
It is not at all clear why the government needs such a staggering amount of data from Google to make its case -- which is essentially that Web filters are not as effective at blocking porn as the threat of prosecution, and that they pose at least as many problems to free speech. Filters have been blasted by technology advocates and civil libertarians, who say the software often fails to catch many sources of unsuitable material while blocking too much that isn't smut. Then again, a frontal assault on filters would be awkward for the Justice Department, which successfully defended another federal law that requires libraries to use them.