AOL’s accidental release of search term queries made by its members over the course of three months — many of which were specific enough to identify actual users — is bound to cause trouble for the search engine industry in Washington. Privacy advocates have already starting calling for stricter controls on what data search engines can retain. One bill, admittedly still bottled up in committee, is the Eliminate Warehousing of Consumer Internet Data Act, proposed by Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.).
However, some in the search industry say they have plenty to fear from Washington — but not quite in this respect. Speaking before a Search Engine Strategies conference in San Jose, Calif., Google CEO Eric Schmidt told audience members that the government’s attempt to get access to this data is a more serious threat.
“There are many things inside our company that we don’t share … starting with user queries. I always thought it was fertile ground for the government to snoop.”
He has a point, Peter Vogel, partner with the Dallas office of Gardere Wynne Sewell, told TechNewsWorld. “I do share this concern and think it is a big threat, although perhaps not the biggest threat to privacy on the Internet.” Of course, search term data has been used in both civil and criminal court cases, from child custody disputes to murder trials. However, what Schmidt appears to be alluding to is a wider net cast by the government, compared to the prosecution of one individual.
Justice Department vs. Google
Google, of course, has already tangled with the government in at least one instance of which the public is aware. Earlier this year, Google went to court to squash a subpoena from the Department of Justice requesting a sample of search term queries over a certain period of time. The DoJ had asked for, and apparently received, similar data from other search providers including Yahoo, AOL and MSN. Justice said it wanted the information for research as it sought to seek reinstatement of online child protection law. Eventually, a federal judge granted part of the request, but disallowed specific search data queries.
Privacy Policies and Government Loopholes
Google’s partial victory might provide some comfort to privacy advocates except for one fact, Vogel said: Most of the search engine providers have given themselves a loophole to answer such requests in the privacy policies. The only privacy expectation consumers have on the Internet, for the most part, is what is promised by vendors in their privacy policies, which tend to be obtusely worded. However, Vogel said, most of the privacy policies for the major search engine providers specifically say they have the right to provide the government with data upon request.
“We have a good faith belief that access, use, preservation or disclosure of such information is reasonably necessary to … satisfy any applicable law, regulation, legal process or enforceable governmental request.”