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Google on Friday stepped up its defence against a controversial request for information from the Department of Justice, intensifying its arguments that the US government action could harm the privacy of its users.
Google’s decision to fight the DoJ request, unlike rivals Microsoft and Yahoo, reflects a view inside the company that the case could set an important precedent for later government subpoenas seeking other types of personal data, according to one person familiar with its deliberations.
The legal tussle has been prompted by the DoJ’s request to all three companies for a broad sample of the search terms that users type into their search engines, and the pages that are returned. The data is needed to help evaluate the effectiveness of internet filters that are designed to prevent obscene material from reaching children, according to the US government.
In a brief filed on Friday in federal court in San Jose, Google repeated its earlier arguments that the DoJ had not adequately demonstrated the need for the information, that it could be forced to hand over commercially sensitive information about the workings of its search engine, and that the request imposed an undue burden.
In a new twist, it also spelled out a fuller case for why the case could touch on privacy issues. “Google users trust that when they enter a search query into a Google search box, not only will they receive back the most relevant results, but that Google will keep private whatever information users communicate absent a compelling reason,” according to the company’s filing.
Some of the terms that users enter as search queries contain information that makes them personally identifiable, the company claimed. That includes things like social security numbers, credit card numbers and “mistakenly pasted but revealing text.”
Google also advanced a new argument that search requests should be covered by the higher standards of protection granted to personal email under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. If searching for information online falls within the act’s definition of “electronic communications”, it said, the government would have to seek a court order for the information, or give notice to every single Google user.
A hearing on the case is due later this month.