It is encouraging that U.S. District Judge James Ware has shown some concerns about privacy. Even so, the likelihood that Internet search-engine company Google will be required to turn over a sample of 50,000 Web site addresses and 5,000 search queries — rather than a million of each — so it can conduct what amounts to a social science research project, is still troubling.
The request from the government was always more than a little bizarre. Here’s some background.
Two years ago the U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional the 1998 Child Online Protection Act, which made it a crime to make the overbroad and vague category of “material harmful to minors” commercially available on the Web. Almost as an aside in the opinion, the court (not noted for expertise on sophisticated technology) noted that privately developed commercial Internet filters probably would do at least as effective a job as the law when it came to keeping children from having access to porn and other “harmful” material.
The government seized on that comment as a way to get the court to lift the injunction against enforcing the law. It is trying to prove that private Internet filters are ineffective and only the power of the federal government is sufficient to protect our children. But it needs data on Internet searches to analyze, thus it has demanded such data from Google — and from Microsoft, America Online and Yahoo, which have already complied. The government has hired a statistician to massage the data.
The government assures us this is for statistical purposes only and individual users will not be identifiable. But the government is hardly perfect at keeping information confidential, and once it has this information other agencies might be tempted to mine it in ways that raise concerns about user privacy from government snooping.
The fact the government requested such a huge amount of information to do a study to defend a law that will probably not pass constitutional muster because it is too vague and too broad anyway raises the suspicion that the request has more to do with setting a precedent for future demands for data on the Internet. The fact that the Internet is largely free of government supervision and control — one of the factors that makes it so attractive to many Americans — frustrates the dickens out of many politicians and bureaucrats.
Judge Ware would do well to keep them frustrated.