But Broader Privacy Concerns Remain

San Francisco - Yesterday, the Justice Department asked a federal court in San Jose, California to force Google to turn over search records for use as evidence in a case where the government is defending the constitutionality of the Child Online Protection Act (COPA). Google has refused to comply with a subpoena for those records, based in part on its concern for its users' privacy.

COPA is a federal law that requires those who publish non-obscene, constitutionally protected sexual material online to take difficult and expensive steps to prevent access by minors, steps that would chill publishers of sexual material as well as the adults who want to access such material anonymously. EFF is one of the plaintiffs in the First Amendment challenge to COPA.

The subpoena to Google currently asks for a random sampling of one million URLs from Google's database of web sites on the Internet. More importantly, the DOJ is also subpoenaing the text of each search string entered into Google's search engine over a one-week period, absent any information identifying the people who entered the search terms.

"The government is overreaching here, asking Google to do its dirty work and collect information about the Internet speech activities of Google users," said EFF Staff Attorney Kurt Opsahl. "Last month, the federal court rejected many of the government's over broad discovery requests to its opposing parties. Rather than learn its lesson, the DOJ continues to push for overreaching discovery, this time from a company that isn't even a party to the case."

Google has cited its concern for user privacy as a reason for not complying with the subpoena, in addition to the unreasonable burden that compliance would place on Google and the proprietary nature of its query database. In particular, Google is rightly concerned that many of the randomly selected search queries would contain personal information about Google users.

While EFF applauds Google for defending its users' privacy in this case, the current controversy only highlights the broader privacy problem: Google logs all of the searches you make, and most if not all of those queries are personally identifiable via cookies, IP addresses, and Google account information.

"The only way Google can reasonably protect the privacy of its users from such legal demands now and in the future is to stop collecting so much information about its users, delete information that it does collect as soon as possible, and take real steps to minimize how much of the information it collects is traceable back to individual Google users," said EFF Staff Attorney Kevin Bankston. "If Google continues to gather and keep so much information about its users, government and private attorneys will continue to try and get it."

Importantly, users can also take steps to protect their privacy from Google, the government, and others, by using anonymizing technologies such as Tor when surfing the web. Tor helps hide your IP address from Google so that even if the lawyers come knocking, Google cannot identify you by your searches.

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Kevin Bankston
Staff Attorney
Electronic Frontier Foundation

Kurt Opsahl
Staff Attorney
Electronic Frontier Foundation

Lee Tien
Senior Staff Attorney
Electronic Frontier Foundation

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