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Google has refused to comply with a US government subpoena for information about how people use its search engine, opening one of the first legal battles over whether law enforcement agencies should have access to the increasingly far-reaching data held by search engine companies.

The legal tussle could also raise questions in internet users’ minds over whether information about their personal searches on websites like Google’s could be seized by the government, Google has warned.

The company argues that the government could obtain the information from other public sources and that acceding to the request “would suggest that it is willing to reveal information about those who use its service”.

At the centre of the brewing legal storm between the powerful internet company and the Department of Justice is a long-running effort by the US administration to defend an internet child pornography law that is unrelated to Google and has been struck down by the Supreme Court.

The DoJ says it needs data from Google to prove that filtering software is not effective in protecting minors from pornographic websites.

Google argues in correspondence filed in a California court that the DoJ’s request for information, issued in August, 2005, was “overbroad, unduly burdensome” and “vague”.

“Google is not a party to this lawsuit and their demand for information overreaches. We had lengthy discussions with them to try to resolve this, but were not able to and we intend to resist their motion vigorously,“ Nicole Wong, associate general counsel, said.

The DoJ said in a filing this week that the court should compel Google to comply with the subpoena, in part because some of Google’s competitors had already co-operated with the request, and because the government was not seeking any information that would reveal the identity of the website’s users.

It said that the government had “after lengthy negotiations” narrowed its request for information. After originally requesting from Google “all URL’s” available on the company’s search engine as of July 31, 2005, for example, the DoJ revised its request to seek “a multi-stage random sample” of 1m URL’s from Google’s database. The government also demanded the text of each search string entered into Google over a one week period. It originally wanted the same information over a two-month period.

In its correspondence with the DoJ, Google did not cite privacy as the primary reason for refusing to comply. Instead, the company is most vigorously objecting to the government’s attempt to use its “highly proprietary” search database as a “free resource” to access and use to defend its position in court.

Yahoo, another search engine, acknowledged on Thursday that it was one of the companies that complied with the government’s demand, and said the DoJ’s subpoena did not represent a “privacy issue”. The company said it was a “rigorous defender” of its users’ privacy and that it had only complied with the request on a “limited basis”.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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