Late last year, the Department of Justice requested that Google and several other search engines (including Yahoo!, MSN, and AOL) turn over a sampling of randomly selected searches that had been run over a two-month period. Now that’s a scary thought… all of our searches suddenly candidates for review by lawyers and who knows who else. Well, Google decided not to give up these searches, and last week federal district judge James Ware ruled that the motion “compelling Google to disclose search queries of users” is denied (see the ruling, last paragraph).
Google is understandably pleased. It sure didn’t take them long to get the ruling onto their blog. But even more imporantly, this is an important ruling for those concerned about the privacy of information gathering. In his ruling, Judge Ware correctly identified “the interest of individuals in freedom from general surveillance by the Government of their use of the Internet or other communications media” as one of “three vital interests” raised by the case.
What is particularly interesting to me, however, is that Google didn’t argue that handing over our searches would violate our privacy… the Judge did. As Ware says on page 6 of the ruling (at the beginning of the Discussion section),
Google primarily argues that the information sought by the subpoena is not reasonably calculated to lead to evidence admissible in the underlying litigation, and that the production of information is unduly burdensome. The Court discusses each of these objections in turn, as well as the Court’s own concerns about the potential interests of Google’s users.
So, sua sponte, the Court had to argue that even though the Government was pretty sure that the text of our searches couldn’t provide enough information to be compromising, Ware realized that sometimes people search for their own names plus other information, or for social security numbers, or credit card numbers.
This is all well and good, but two things mitigate the joyousness of the news. First, the Court didn’t actually express a legal opinion on the privacy matter because the case as it was presented didn’t actually call for a ruling on privacy. Second, if the Government wants the information later, they can always get it via the USA PATRIOT Act (and yes, it’s an acronym… look it up on page 2 of the act).
Still, things could be a lot worse. This is a baby step in the right direction.