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Google wins partial keywords victory

A federal judge denied a U.S. government request that Google Inc. be ordered to hand over a sample of keywords customers use to search the Internet, but required on Friday that the company produce some Web addresses indexed in its system.

In a 21-page ruling, Judge James Ware of the U.S. District for the Northern District of California said the privacy considerations of Google users led him to deny part of the Justice Department's request.

"To the extent the motion seeks an order compelling Google to disclose search queries of its users the motion is denied," Ware wrote.

U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales had subpoenaed Google to turn over data the government wanted from the company as part of the Bush Administration's attempt to defend a federal law on child pornography on the Internet.

"You have to disclose what your robots find, but you don't have to disclose what people search for," Andy Serwin, a privacy law expert, said of the automated software tools Google uses to catalog the Web.

"The order does get the government what it probably needed, not what it wanted," said Serwin, a partner with Foley & Lardner and author of the "Internet Marketing Law Handbook."

During a court hearing on Tuesday the government reduced the number of Google searches it wanted data on to just 50,000 Web addresses and roughly 5,000 search terms from the millions or potentially billions of addresses it had initially sought.

"The court grants the government's motion to compel only as to the sample of 50,000 URLs (Uniform Resource Locators), from Google's search index," the judge ruled, referring to the searchable catalog of documents that form the core of Google's Web search service, the most widely used in the world.

"What his ruling means is that neither the government nor anyone else has carte blanche when demanding data from Internet companies," Nicole Wong, Google's associate general counsel, said in a statement on the company's Web site. The full comment is at http://googleblog.blogspot.com/.

STAND ON PRIVACY

Ware ruled that the 50,000 Web addresses, or URLs, were a relevant request by the government, which wants the data for a statistical study it is doing to show the effectiveness of filtering software at issue in a separate case -- ACLU v. Gonzales -- that concerns a federal law on online child pornography.

"The expectation of privacy by some Google users may not be reasonable, but may nonetheless have an appreciable impact on the way in which Google is perceived, and consequently the frequency with which users use Google," Ware wrote.

"This concern, combined with the prevalence of Internet searches for sexually explicit material ... gives this court pause as to whether the search queries themselves may constitute potentially sensitive information," he said.

In his decision, Judge Ware wrote of the "three vital interests" that needed to be weighed in the case: national interest, proprietary business information and privacy concerns.

"This Court is particularly concerned any time enforcement of a subpoena imposes an economic burden on a non-party," he wrote in a filing made at the close of business of Friday.

Professor T. Barton Carter, a professor of communication at Boston University's College of Communication, said that beyond privacy issues there remain further concerns.

"It is still a little disturbing that essentially the government can compel information from a party that is not involved in a lawsuit," he said.

"Given their initial request, obviously it is a victory for privacy to the extent that no information entered from the users is being offered," Carter said.

 

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