Sat Feb 18, 2006 7:24 AM IST
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – Google Inc. on Friday formally rejected the U.S. Justice Department’s subpoena of data from the Web search leader, arguing the demand violated the privacy of users’ Web searches and its own trade secrets.
Responding to a motion by U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, Google also said in a filing in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California the government demand to disclose Web search data was impractical.
The Bush administration is seeking to compel Google to hand over Web search data as part of a bid by the Justice Department to appeal a 2004 Supreme Court injunction of a law to penalize Web site operators who allow children to view pornography.
Google is going it alone in opposing the U.S. government request. Rivals Microsoft Corp. and Yahoo Inc. are among the companies that have complied with the Justice Department demand for data to be used to make its case.
Google’s lawyers said the company shares the government’s concern with materials harmful to minors but argued that the request for its data was irrelevant. They offered a series of technical arguments why this data was not useful.
The Mountain View, California-based company said that complying with the U.S. government’s request for "untold millions of search queries" would put an undue burden on the company, including a "week of engineer time to complete."
"Algorithms regularly change. The identical search query submitted today may yield a different result than the identical search conducted yesterday," attorneys from Perkins Coie LLP, the company’s external legal counsel, argue in the filing.
Complying with the Justice Department request would also force Google to reveal how its Web search technology works — something it jealously guards as a trade secret, the company argued. It refuses to disclose even the total number of searches conducted each day.
Google’s resistance contrasts with a deal the company has struck with the Chinese government to censor some searches on a new site in China, a move that has drawn sharp criticism from members of the U.S. Congress and human rights activists.
"Google users trust that when they enter a search query into a Google search box … that Google will keep private whatever information users communicate absent a compelling reason," attorneys for Google said in the filing.
The legal spat also comes amid heightened sensitivity to privacy issues by the company as it recently began offering a new version of its Google Desktop service that vacuums up data stored on user PCs and makes it accessible on the users’ other computers. For customers who consent to the service, copies of their data are stored on Google’s central computers.
Privacy activists have rallied to the defense of Google for fighting the U.S. government request while some conservative and religious organizations have criticized the company for failing to help the government combat child pornography.
The American Civil Liberties Union, with other civil rights groups, bookstores and alternative media outlets filed a friend of the court brief on behalf of Google.
The hearing on the Justice Department motion to compel Google to divulge the search data is scheduled to take place on March 13 in San Jose before U.S. District Judge James Ware.
"The government must show that this request is the most relevant way to accomplish its goal," said Perry Aftab, an attorney, privacy activist and executive director of WiredSafety.org, a popular online child safety site.
"Why would Google or anyone else turn over data that might create further risks for their customers? The public policy gains don’t outweigh the risks," she said.