According to a ZDnet article, Justice Department prosecutors have asked Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and AOL to turn over millions of records from their databases.
This is all part of the government’s attempt to defend the Child Online Protection Act (COPA). The ACLU is challenging COPA in part on the grounds that compliance is impossible. To support COPA, the federal prosecutors want information about the prevalence of pornography on the internet and its availability to children. So they’ve subpoenaed the four big search services for information that will help them prove their point.
This strikes me as an insane act of overreaching authority. None of the search engine companies are parties to the actual case being decided. Neither are they witnesses to any fact about the case. This is not like subpoenaing a bank to see if the defendent in a criminal case has any suspicious transactions. Rather, this is like trying to prove a transaction is suspicious by subpoenaing the records of millions of uninvolved people in order to establish what non-suspicious behavior looks like.
(The analogy isn’t perfect, but I think it gets the point across.)
The government is simply gathering statistical information about the internet by trying to abuse the subpoena power to steal the information from companies that have it, rather than gathering the information at its own expense.
Yahoo and AOL have both complied, but they claim to have cleansed the data of personally identifiable information to protect their customers privacy. The Justice department isn’t entirely happy with that.
Microsoft says “MSN works closely with law enforcement officials worldwide to assist them when requested….It is our policy to respond to legal requests in a very responsive and timely manner, in full compliance with applicable law.” They offer no further elaboration, but I’m pretty sure that means they squealed like pigs.
Google alone is fighting the subpoena:
In a letter dated Oct. 10, 2005, Google lawyer Ashok Ramani objected to the Justice Department’s request on the grounds that it could disclose trade secrets and was “overbroad, unduly burdensome, vague and intended to harass.”
I’d like to think that Google is fighting out of firm principle. Actually, I’m pretty sure they are. I suspect, however, that they are also a little naive. They’ve been working in a high-tech bubble for a long time and have never had the loving attention of the Justice Department before.
I wish them all the luck in the world. Fight the Power!