A federal judge Friday denied a Justice Department demand for access to some Internet search queries of Google Inc. users in a closely watched case testing the limits of online privacy.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge James Ware in San Jose was a victory for Google, which argued that handing over the records would violate the privacy of people who might scour the Internet with terms as diverse as “best-actor nominees,” “third trimester abortion” or “pipe bomb.”
Although Ware required Google to reveal some information about the websites in its database, he ordered the government to reimburse the Mountain View, Calif., company for the time and expense required to comply.
But for Google -- a quirky dot-com with the corporate mantra “Don’t be evil” -- the more important issue was whether it could restrict access to potentially revealing queries.
“We will always be subject to government subpoenas, but the fact that the judge sent a clear message about privacy is reassuring,” said Google’s associate general counsel, Nicole Wong. “What his ruling means is that neither the government nor anyone else has carte blanche when demanding data from Internet companies.”
Privacy advocates cheered the decision as a check on the Bush administration’s efforts to collect information about people, but noted that the trove of personal data gathered and stored by sites like Google was irresistible to investigators.
“This issue is going to come up over and over again,” said Cindy Cohn, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “I don’t think this should make anybody very comfortable about the future. Google still has this stuff and people will still try to seek it.”
Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales issued subpoenas to Google and three other top Internet companies last year, seeking details of potentially billions of search queries as part of an investigation into online pornography. The Justice Department also demanded a sample of the millions of websites archived in the search engines’ databases.
The other companies -- Yahoo Inc., Microsoft Corp. and America Online Inc. -- complied at least in part. Google executives balked and the case became a test of the government’s reach in the Internet Age.
Yahoo, Microsoft and America Online declined to comment after Ware’s ruling late Friday.
Those companies have said that the information they provided did not violate users’ privacy, because it did not include names or computer addresses. Even so, the disclosure alarmed civil liberties advocates, who feared that the searches could reveal private information and that the government could pass alarming queries to criminal investigators.
“People for too long thought they were anonymous on the Internet,” said Andrew Serwin, an attorney specializing in privacy and Internet law. “People now realize they’re not.”
Justice Department officials could not be reached late Friday.
Federal lawyers earlier this week slashed their Google request to 5,000 randomly selected search terms entered by users and 50,000 website addresses in the company’s searchable index. The government previously had requested a week’s worth of queries, which could have numbered in the billions, as well as a million indexed Web addresses.
Ware granted the request for the Web addresses but declined to force Google to release the queries. He wrote in his 21-page ruling that he was balancing the government’s need to gather data against Google’s expectation that it could operate without undue interference or fear that its trade secrets might be revealed. Google lawyers argued at a hearing Tuesday that the company’s search engine was popular in part because users trusted that their personal information would be guarded.
“The expectation of privacy by some Google users may not be reasonable, but may nonetheless have an appreciable impact on the way in which Google is perceived, and consequently the frequency with which users use Google,” Ware wrote.
Federal laws generally require a search warrant or court order to procure electronic information without a user’s permission, not the simple subpoena presented to Google.
Government lawyers had requested the data for an unrelated civil lawsuit regarding the Child Online Protection Act, a 1998 law blocked by a federal court. The Justice Department, seeking to restore the law, said it would use the information from search engines only to test how well Internet filters prevent children from accessing potentially harmful websites.
Deirdre Mulligan, a law profesor at UC Berkeley, called the government’s request to Google “a fishing expedition.”
“It’s the same as going into a medical clinic and saying, ‘The last few people who came in, what diseases did they ask you about?’ ” Mulligan said.