Google much? The Justice Department wants to know

To defend an antiporn law, government lawyers say they need to see search engine logs.

Published January 19, 2006 10:20PM (EST)

The Bush administration appears to have violated the law in launching its NSA spying program and then failing to inform Congress about it, but Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff wants everyone to know this: There is "no evidence that this program was designed to achieve political ends or do something nefarious."

We'll have to take his word on it because, really, it's all that we've got. Maybe the Bush administration will come clean about the NSA program when Senate hearings begin on Feb. 6. Until then, though, we've got more questions than answers: Whose calls were being monitored? Why wasn't the usual Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court procedure adequate? And if it wasn't adequate, why didn't the Bush administration ask Congress for specific statutory authority to do whatever it was that the FISC procedure wouldn't have allowed?

And now we've got one more question that seems to us at least a little related: Why, exactly, is the Justice Department demanding that Google turn over records that could show what millions of Americans have been looking to find on the World Wide Web?

As Scott Rosenberg noted on his blog Wednesday, Bush administration lawyers have served a subpoena on Google in which they demand that it produce a week's worth of search engine activity logs. In court filings, lawyers for the Justice Department say they need the logs to defend the constitutionality of the Child Online Protection Act, a 1998 antiporn measure the Supreme Court has already struck down once. According to the San Jose Mercury News, Justice Department lawyers are trying to show that the law is more efficient than software filters when it comes to protecting kids from online porn. "To back that claim," the Mercury News says, "the government has subpoenaed search engines to develop a factual record of how often Web users encounter online porn and how Web searches turn up material they say is 'harmful to minors.'"

Salon is a party to the litigation, and Rosenberg has followed it as closely as anyone. He sees the subpoena as consistent "with the rest of the Imperial Presidency's tactics: When in doubt, seize as much private citizens' information as you can and see what kind of a case you can patch together." Meanwhile, privacy advocates wonder why the Bush administration really wants this information -- and what it will do with it if it overcomes Google's objections and gets it.

"This is exactly the kind of case that privacy advocates have long feared," privacy consultant Ray Everett-Church tells the Mercury News. "The idea that these massive databases are being thrown open to anyone with a court document is the worst-case scenario ... The government can't even claim that it's for national security. They're just using it to get the search engines to do their research for them in a way that compromises the civil liberties of other people."

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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