Internet access companies like Google Inc., America Online and Yahoo! Inc. lavishly promise to protect your privacy as a user. Those promises are being put to a rigorous test by the Bush administration's court fight to get its fingers on millions of Americans' Internet search results.
In case you haven't heard, Google is refusing to obey a demand by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales's Justice Department to release a small mountain of information about what people seek when they use the popular search engine.
Google has been fighting a subpoena since last summer that seeks records on Google's search engines for a single week. That project should put a lot of feds to work; my own Google searches alone would choke one of Budweiser's horses.
Google says that request could lead to identifying millions of people and what they are looking for, not to mention jeopardizing Google's privacy concerning its trade secrets. The Justice Department assures us that it does not intend to violate privacy, which is what governments always say when they want your personal records.
Besides, the Justice Department points out, several major Google competitors already have turned over the requested material. I, as a Web surfer, do not find that very comforting, either. With all the assurances that the Internet giants give us about doing their level best to protect their users' privacy, I'd like to see them at least put up a little fight when our government or anybody else's comes calling with what obviously appears to be a fishing expedition.
In this bizarre case, the government is not searching for terrorists, Mafioso, runaway brides or any other specific individuals. Rather, it is seeking information to help resurrect the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), an online pornography law which the Supreme Court struck down in 2004.
The high court called the law too broad and too likely to prevent adults from accessing content that is quite legal. The government needs either to come up with a new law, the court said, or show that the COPA would do a better job of protecting children than conscientious parents already are doing with conventional software filters.
So, to help their long-shot argument that federal law will work better than dutiful parents, the feds want to search Google queries and see how often sexual material pops up in ways that might be viewable by children.
That sounds not only peculiar but unnecessary. After the Bush administration's controversial revelations that since early 2002 it has approved the tracking of Americans' telecommunications by the National Security Agency without prior court approval, the Justice Department probably already has access to the information it's looking for.
And, if users should find anything more disturbing than the federal government's dubious efforts to get its hands on the search records of Google users, it is the speed with which Google's biggest competitors appear to have given in.
Microsoft, Yahoo, and America Online admitted late last week that they provided some data to the Justice Department, while assuring their users that they did not agree to release any users' names.
Yahoo, unfortunately, could not say that when it cooperated with a Chinese government request to reveal the name of an anonymous Yahoo e-mail user. The user turned out to be journalist Shi Tao. For the alleged offense of reporting the government's media restrictions during the 2004 anniversary of the crackdown at Tiananmen Square, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Yahoo's role was revealed in a leaked copy of the verdict. The company has declined to talk about it, leaving the rest of us to wonder: If an American company will turn in one of its own customers to stay please China's government, what reason do we American customers have to expect they'll put up much of an argument with our own government?
Other firms, including Google and Microsoft, also have had to defend questionable cooperation with Chinese censors. Microsoft, for example, agreed to a Chinese government request to close the MSN Spaces web site of a popular Beijing blogger, Zhao Jing.
The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders has called on Western governments to take action if Internet companies do not adopt voluntary codes favoring information freedom. The industry argues back that the empowering forces of the Internet will, in the long run, undermine Big-Brother tyrants in China and elsewhere. I hope they're right. But, in the short run, China leads all other countries for imprisoning journalists, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
Now that Google has shown it can stand up to America's government, it would be truly heartening to see it and its competitors show a little backbone to the world's truly oppressive regimes. Sometimes the prospect of big profits asks too much.