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A tangled Web

January 22, 2006

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.

The department's research also evokes concerns about what the government might ultimately do with its snapshot of Web-searching habits. The feds originally asked Google to disclose two months' worth of search inquiries, then pared their request to one week. The list wouldn't include any information about the users who did the searches, but prosecutors could certainly demand such details from Google if they came across any searches that were troubling -- "how to hide a methamphetamine lab," say, or "cellphone detonate plastic explosive."

The sheer volume of data being vacuumed up by the government, though, makes such probing seem farfetched. After all, it's not just Google's data that is involved. Government lawyers have already obtained information from three other popular search sites, including Yahoo.

The big winner in all this stands to be Google. The company's rapid expansion beyond simple Web searches, combined with revelations about the amount of data it stores about individual users, has led critics to accuse Google of violating its informal corporate motto, "Don't be evil." By resisting the feds' subpoena, however, the company has set itself above the search-engine pack -- and given users a valuable reminder that searching through the Web leaves a trail.

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