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Bush Administration Seeks Google Search Records


From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.


And I'm Madeleine Brand. Coming up: what does Osama bin Laden mean when he offers Americans a truce?

CHADWICK: First, the lead, which is this today: how much should the government know about what you are Googling? This story is all over the front pages of many newspapers across the country this morning because of this: earlier this week, the Justice Department asked a court to force Google to provide records about searches that its users make on the internet. The administration says it needs that information to defend an anti-porn law that is in the courts now. Joining us is DAY TO DAY tech contributor, Xeni Jardin. Xeni, where do we begin here? Tell us what happened?

Ms. XENI JARDIN ( Okay, well, this Wednesday, Justice Department attorneys filed papers at a federal district court in San Jose, California, near Google's headquarters, saying the search engine hasn't complied with requests for a random list of a million web addresses in its search index and a week's worth of search queries, so that could be billions of entries. The request does not ask Google to identify what individual users looked for online. The Justice Department first asked for the information last August. Google responded in October, refusing to give up the information, and they argued that the department demand for information is overreaching and said that compliance could also expose trade secrets.

CHADWICK: Okay, well, here's the basic thing. The Justice Department is saying, we want to find out how much porn kids might access if they go on to look for something, and so we want to, say, take a random search of a million different websites and give us what all those threads lead to. Now, AOL, Microsoft and Yahoo have all said, okay, we'll do that. What is at issue here?

Ms. JARDIN: Well, the Justice Department isn't talking on tape, but the big concern here is about exposing children to porn. Anyone who searches on the web for anything simple knows that porn can creep up in results for anything, no matter how innocuous. You look for a recipe for apple pie or search for the weather, you know what happens.

So imagine your child doing the same search. Imagine if your child went into the library to check out a book, and instead of getting a children's illustrated book, they got a porn magazine. We would have a problem with that. The Justice Department says that's why this matters. Also, remember that the Justice Department isn't asking for any information about individual users with this request. AOL, Microsoft and Yahoo aren't discussing this on tape either, but that could be why they were comfortable with complying.

CHADWICK: So what the Justice Department is asking for here is access to the records of these search engines. If indeed we are becoming an information society, doesn't this get to the basic definition of what that society's going to be?

Ms. JARDIN: It does. The Supreme Court blocked enforcement of this law, the Child Online Protection Act, in 2004 saying, look, the Justice Department should try other ways of achieving those goals without treading on first amendment rights. And what they're trying to do now is show that this law is needed to protect children from porn. It wants data from Google and other search engines to prove that ordinary searches could lead children to porn. That's what the fight is about.

CHADWICK: Xeni Jardin, co-editor of the tech blog and regular technology contributor on DAY TO DAY. Xeni, thank you.

JARDIN: Thank you, Alex. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Xeni Jardin
Xeni Jardin can be heard on NPR’s Day to Day, offering technology insights for listeners nationwide. Jardin is also a contributing writer for Wired Magazine, as well as a tech culture journalist and co-editor of the collaborative weblog, the award-winning "Directory of Wonderful Things."