Yesterday it was revealed that AOL, Microsoft and Yahoo! complied with Justice Department subpoenas to turn over search data. Google has made a very high profile statement that it will not. Here's more coverage of the issue in the NY Times (reg. req'd).
Yahoo! spokespeople said none of the information revealed individual identities and thus did not violate individual privacy rights. The government claims—although given the history of this administration any claims must be viewed with skepticism at a minimum—that the search-engine data will enable it to defend the Child Online Protection Act of 1998 (which the U.S. Supreme Court previously blocked from implementation).
It may well be that the information being requested by the Bush Administration can be provided without revealing any sensitive, personal information; I don't have any insight into the technical issues nor have I yet read the subpoena(s). But I would defer to Danny Sullivan on this point who said:
In particular, the Bush administration wanted one million random web addresses and records of all Google searches for a one week period. The government apparently wants to estimate how much pornography shows up in the searches that children do.
Here's a thought. If you want to measure how much porn is showing up in searches, try searching for it yourself rather than issuing privacy alarm sounding subpoenas. It would certainly be more accurate.
Getting a list of all searches in one week definitely would let US federal government dig deep into the long tail of porn searches. But then again, the sheer amount of data would be overwhelming. Do you know every variation of a term someone might use, that you're going to dig out of the hundreds of millions of searches you'd get? Oh, and be sure you filter out all the automated queries coming in from rank checking tools, while you're add it. They won't skew the data at all, nope.
Moreover, since the data is divorced from user info, you have no idea what searches are being done by children or not. In the end, you've asked for a lot of data that's not really going to help you estimate anything at all.
There's a bigger picture and a bigger struggle here. The government wants unfettered access to desired information about individuals' behavior online and off and the NSA wiretapping and spying is reflective of that intent. As the NY Times piece points out:
Whatever the courts ultimately decide on the pornography law at issue, however, Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School, said the Google case pointed to a larger struggle for the identity of the Internet.
"Search engines are at the center of that battle, both here and in other countries," said Professor Wu. "By asserting its power over search engines, using threats of force, the government can directly affect what the Internet experience is. For while Google is fighting the subpoena, it's clear that if they lose, they will comply."
The now discredited "Total Information Awareness" (TIA) initiative is being revived piecemeal through myriad techniques (search-engine subpoenas among them) and under myriad guises (Patriot Act, COPA, etc.).
As EPIC points out, the TIA "was as envisioned to give law enforcement access to private data without suspicion of wrongdoing or a warrant."
The recent US Supreme Court decision this week to uphold Oregon's assisted suicide law was about federalism, but was also widely seen as a rebuke to the Bush Administration's unfettered exercise of executive power and discretion.
One of the things that we all should be concerned about, liberals and libertarians alike, is whether the Internet will become a vehicle for creative innovation, communications and growth or whether it will become something else—a mechanism to monitor dissent and to help exercise social control (through intimidation or chilling of free speech).
I realize that's a "black and white" distinction but those who are interested in the health of the Internet and the society more generally (and more importantly) need to be extremely vigilant during these precarious times and speak out against unilateral assertions of anti-democratic authority whether they appear nakedly as such or in the guise of protecting children.
Lots of material on the issue resides at the bottom of Danny Sullivan's blog post I linked to above.