Web 2.0 to suffer from United States Department of Justice request?

I see Xeni Jardin over at Boing Boing has posted an article on how the US Department of Justice have requested a weeks worth of search data from the major US search engines. Seemingly Yahoo, AOL, and MSN simply handed over the data without any question. Google however held out and is now being taken to court by the DoJ for refusing to comply with the order.

Google’s reason for not complying? Well it wasn’t on privacy grounds, nope, Google refused on grounds that the request was too broad and burdensome!

The Department of Justice is playing the monsters under the bed children protection card:

the information it has requested, which includes one million random Web addresses and records of all Google searches from a one-week period, is essential to its upcoming defense of the constitutionality of the Child Online Protection Act

Danny Sullivan over at SearchEngineWatch has a rapidly updating analysis of this story – according to Danny:

a more accurate way for the government to assess how often children might encounter porn through search engines would be to conduct their own research. Indeed, they have. Government Report Says MSN Search Adult Filter Most Effective from the SEW Blog back in June covers this report (PDF format) that the US Government Accountability Office did back in June. From what I can see, it measured how often children might encounter porn through image search. To do the assessment, no subpoenas were required.

What was interesting for me was how the other search engines caved and handed over the data. I was interviewing Bradley Horowitz of Yahoo! the other night for a Podleaders.com podcast and, in the context of Yahoo! having previously provided information to the Chinese Government which resulted in a Chinese journalist being jailed for 10 years, I specifically asked him:

If this had happened in the US would Yahoo! have fought the government request in the courts?

Bradley’s response was interesting – he said:

We are bound to abide by the laws of any country in which we do business… so under a court order or a subpoena we would hand it over

In this case however, as far as I know, there was no court order or subpoena – simply a request from the Department of Justice. In fairness to Bradley he makes it clear that he is not a policy officer of Yahoo! and Yahoo! are not the only search engine which complied with the request.

However, you have to think that this request is only setting a precedent for far more reaching and specific requests to come in the future. What will this do to Web 2.0 and people’s willingnes to host their data on other companies servers, I wonder?

I see Damien Mulley has posted on this as well.

UPDATE:
John Battelle has published another post on this subject showing that the Department of Justice’s motives are far darker than previously suspected – specifically:

From the motion the DOJ filed to force Google to comply with the subpoena:

“The subpoena asks Google to produce an electronic file containing ‘[a]ll URL’s that rea available to be located through a query on your company’s search engine as of July 31 2005.”

and

“all queries that have been entered on your company’ search engine between June 1, 2005 and July 31, 2005.”

God alone knows why they would want all that data from Google (and presumably the other search engines as well) – but we know it has nothing to do with seeing if children can access porn.

As John said:

No way in hell Google would give that up, given the company’s penchant for secrecy. Sure, the DOJ might guarantee that the data would not enter the public record, but, once in the DOJ’s hands, it’s out of Google’s control.

8 thoughts on “Web 2.0 to suffer from United States Department of Justice request?”

  1. I notice that AOL are now saying that they didn’t give the requested information to the Justice Department, rather they supplied aggregate information that didn’t include results or any other personally identifiable information. The sort of info that could be obtained from several sites

    I don’t think the fact that AOL didn’t supply the requested information is the point, rather the fact that they supplied it at the drop of a hat. As Homer would say, 3 out of 4 search engines folded faster than Superman on laundry day.

    I have yet to see a mention of the geographical scope the of request. Was this just records of searches originating within the US to US based Google servers, or is it worldwide?

  2. I don’t think the fact that AOL didn’t supply the requested information is the point, rather the fact that they supplied it at the drop of a hat

    Absolutely Pete – it is scary that they simply handed it over on request, no court order, no subpoena, a simple request was all it took. Moreover, if Google hadn’t failed to hand the info over, we might never have heard of this!

    I have yet to see a mention of the geographical scope the of request. Was this just records of searches originating within the US to US based Google servers, or is it worldwide?

    I was curious about that too Pete – I presume it is all (in the absence of data to the contrary).

  3. Clearly, DOJ aren’t after Child Protection. They’re after the aggregated, broad reaching data, not the more accurate (with respect to their stated objective) random end user sample. They use this child protection card because it’s embarrassing and press worthy. I am shocked by how easily AOL, MSN, and Yahoo hand over their sets without resistance.

    I applaud Google for standing up against DOJ.

    “Principles only mean something when you stick to them when it’s inconvenient. “

  4. Sorry Dave – I should have been clearer.

    Web 2.0 apps are generally about people trusting 3rd party companies with their data (think Basecamp, Flickr, BackPack, etc.). This action by the DoJ is likely to give people pause for thought before they consider handing over thier data to 3rd parties.

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