Google Subpoena Roils the Web

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Google Subpoena Roils the Web

Newspaper article

By: Hiawatha Bray

Date: January 21, 2006

Source: Bray, Hiawatha. "Google Subpoena Roils the Web." Boston Globe (January 21, 2006).

About the Author: Hiawatha Bray is a staff reporter for the Boston Globe, a nationally distributed newspaper based in Boston.


In 1998, the U.S. Congress passed the Child Online Protection Act, one of whose provisions would have required commercial distributors of online sexual materials to block access by minors to that material. The law was challenged as an infringement on free speech. Enforcement of the act was blocked starting in 1998 by a ruling of a Federal district court, and the block was upheld in 2004 by the U.S. Supreme Court in Ashcroft v. American Civil Liberties Union. However, the Court returned the case to a lower Federal court for further consideration instead of overturning the Act altogether. The case was still being considered as of early 2006.

In August 2005, in order to bolster its case for the Child Online Protection Act, the U.S. Justice Department issued a subpoena to the Google corporation for data on Internet searches. It sought information that would show that sexual information is easily accessible on the Internet (therefore presumably a threat to children). A subpoena is a court order that requires a party to testify to the court; disobedience may entail criminal penalties.

The Justice Department sought access to records for all of the billions of search queries performed by U.S. computer users over a one-week period, along with a random sample of one million Internet addresses searchable by Google. The Justice Department did not request information that would have allowed it to identify which computer users had searched which sites, although Google does record this information. It is collected using cookies, which are small files that are sent from a Web site, such as, to the Web browser software on a user's computer, then re-sent from that computer to the same Web site every time it is accessed. User logs can show that a particular user accessed a specific site on a certain date.

Three other Internet search companies received similar subpoenas, but only Google said that it would not comply. Although its refusal was widely reported as an effort to protect its customers' privacy, Google denied that it was refusing the request on privacy-protection grounds. At the same time, it refused to explain what its reasons for withholding the information actually were. Some Internet experts speculated that Google was afraid that trade secrets could be deduced from the information.

In January, 2006 the Justice Department asked a Federal court to force Google to comply with the subpoena. In March, after the Justice Department agreed to shrink its request, the judge said that he would order Google to supply the information. Google complied with the reduced request, which was for 50,000 searchable Internet addresses and no search queries.

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The Google subpoena controversy reveals a source of increasing tension in modern society: the ability of computers to track the behaviors of millions of individuals over time in a highly specific way, whether they are suspected of any crime or not. Computer records from credit-card transactions, cell-phone and land-line calls, Internet searches, Web site visits, online purchases and downloads, automatic toll-booths, built-in automotive navigation systems, Global Positioning System devices, hospitals, police and military organizations, and other sources can all be compiled with relative ease and, potentially, delivered to government authorities. When compiled, such records can give a remarkably complete picture of a person's movements, habits, and contacts. Some experts argue that the possession of so much information by intelligence agencies, police, and the like could be used to monitor personal behavior in ways that infringe on basic liberties. They point to countries that not only censor Internet usage but use it to track down and punish political dissidents. One such is China, where dozens of political dissidents have been jailed in recent years using data gleaned from Internet usage records—including data supplied voluntarily by Yahoo!, a rival of Google.

In May, 2006, in an affair reminiscent of the Google subpoena case, it was reported by the newspaper USA Today that the National Security Agency had been secretly collecting records from the telecommunications companies AT&T, Verizon, and BellSouth. The records allegedly collected showed the source and destination of all telephone calls made in the United States since just after September 11, 2001. Actual conversations were not recorded. (However, debate was also occurring over 2005 revelations that the National Security Agency had for several years been recording the telephone conversations of some U.S. citizens and others without obtaining search warrants). The stated purpose of the en masse call monitoring was to look for calling patterns that might signify terrorist planning, but critics of the program expressed outrage that the phone records of tens of millions of U.S. citizens had been obtained without warrant or reason to suspect criminal activity. In a press conference the same day, President George W. Bush defended the program, saying, "Al-Qaeda is our enemy, and we want to know their plans. We are not mining or trolling through the personal lives of innocent Americans." According to USA Today, the President "didn't address specifics of the program and walked away without responding to reporters' questions."

Computer network technologies, by their very nature, can make their users highly visible and traceable. Debate will continue over the distinction between legitimate tracking of security threats and uses of computerized information that violate basic liberties.



Vise, David A. The Google Story. New York: Delacorte Press, 2005.


Hafner, Katie. "After Subpoenas, Internet Searches Give Some Pause." The New York Times (January 25, 2006).

Hafner, Katie and Matt Richtel. "Google Resists U.S. Subpoena of Search Data." The New York Times (January 19, 2006).

Shenk, David. "A Growing Web of Watchers Builds a Surveillance Society." The New York Times (January 25, 2006).

Web sites

American Civil Liberties Union. "Plaintiff's Response to Motion to Compel Google." February 17, 2006. < 211.pdf> (accessed May 29, 2006).

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Google Subpoena Roils the Web

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