US court may force Google to release data

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Google on Tuesday lost part of its fight against releasing data from its search engine to the US government, though a judge in California indicated that he may let the internet company withhold any information that could raise privacy concerns.

The comments by Judge James Ware, made in federal court in San Jose, were welcomed by Google, which has used the dispute as an early test of the extent to which the US government can demand information about how its search engine is used.

However, the company added that the full impact of the case would not be known until the judge delivered a full ruling. “The biggest concern would be the precedent of this case,” said Nicole Wong, assistant general counsel.

The Department of Justice had asked the judge to enforce a subpoena requiring Google to hand over a sample of 50,000 web page addresses, or URLs, from its search index, along with 5,000 random search queries submitted by users.

The government has sought the information as part of a wider review into the extent to which American children are exposed to pornography over the internet. That study is being carried out for a separate legal case being fought over the constitutionality of the country’s Child Online Protection Act, which has antagonised free speech activists.

Echoing concerns expressed by Google’s lawyers, Judge Ware said he would “pay particular attention” to whether Google should be forced to release the search queries, since these may contain personal information entered by users. “I am particularly concerned about the search query database, and the perception by the public that this is somehow subject to government scrutiny,” he said.

The judge said, though, that he would grant at least part of the government’s request, and would require Google to hand over the URLs. A full ruling would be issue soon, he added.

Google had initially argued that handing over the data might risk exposing its trade secrets and would be unduly burdensome. However, after the government agreed to cut the sample size from 1m URLs and an entire week’s worth of search queries, the company conceded its trade secrets were no longer at risk, and Judge Ware said he would require the justice department to pay Google for the work required.

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