Google as the guardian of our privacy
Google creates and holds a lot of transactional information about how millions of people use the Web: searches we perform, pages we look at, ads we click on, driving directions we generate, etc. This has aroused much fear on the part of some privacy advocates. As the owner of all of this data — yes, Google owns (or at least legally controls) the data even though it’s about us — we’re all dependent on Google to protect the privacy of our data. Now, according to a report in the San Jose Mercury News (Feds after Google data, 01/19/2006), Google is refused to comply with a government subpoena for just this data, assert their users privacy interests as a justification. According to the Merc:
In court papers filed in U.S. District Court in San Jose, Justice Department lawyers revealed that Google has refused to comply with a subpoena issued last year for the records, which include a request for 1 million random Web addresses and records of all Google searches from any one-week period.
The government is looking for this data in order to develop arguments in support of the latest effort to censor certain sexually-explicit material.
In this case, Google is assuming the role of privacy protector very similar to that which telephone carriers and cable companies have traditionally performed. Historically, it has often been phone companies who have protected, or at least sought to protect, their customers privacy against government access requests because of the simple fact that the telcos, not the individuals whose privacy is at risk, have the physical ability to grant to deny access to the government. For example, telephone company lawyers supported (unsuccessfully) the proposition that wiretaps violated the 4th Amendment (Olmstead v. US, 1928), lobbied (successfully) for privacy protection for email and other electronic communications (Electronic Communications Privacy Act, 1986), and helped to stop (successfully) the Clinton Administration with the NSA from forcing the Clipper Clip key escrow system on US phone users. Recently, Verizon tried (successfully) to prevent the RIAA from forcing Verizon to reveal the identity of certain customers suspected of copyright infringement through file sharing. Cable companies sought (successfully) to protect the privacy of subscriber billing information.
Now comes Google following in the footsteps of these traditional communications providers. Those provides protected what we communicated about and Google is trying to protect what we’re reading and viewing. On the down side of their case is the strong preference by courts to allow as much information relevant to any given case to be discovered in order to aide the ultimate truth-seeking function of the judicial process. The Merc reports that the dispute has been ongoing for a year. Either way it turns out, I hope that at least we’ll soon get a clear view into the terms of the subpoena and whatever reasoning the court follows in decided whether or not the quash the request.
Update 20 Jan 2006: The Washington Post (Google Refuses Demand for Search Information, A01, 20 January 2006 and the New York Times (Google Resists U.S. Subpoena of Search Data, A1, 20 January 2006) have picked up. The Times helpfully provides a link to the government motion in Gonzales v. Google arguing that the court should compel compliance with the subpoena.