SAN FRANCISCO – Google Inc. on Friday criticized the Bush administration's demand to examine millions of its users' Internet search requests as a misguided fishing expedition that threatens to ruin the company's credibility and reveal its closely guarded secrets.
The Mountain View, Calif.-based company delivered its indignant critique in a 25-page brief that marked its initial legal response to the U.S. Justice Department's attempt to force the online search engine leader to comply with a 6-month-old subpoena.
The Justice Department has until Feb. 24 to respond to the papers that Google filed Friday. A hearing for oral arguments is scheduled March 13 before U.S. District Judge James Ware in San Jose, Calif.
The case has attracted widespread attention because the Justice Department's demand to peek under the hood of the Internet's most popular search engine has underscored the potential for online databases becoming tools for government surveillance.
Hoping to revive an online child protection law that has been blocked by the U.S. Supreme Court, the Justice Department wants a random list of the search requests made by the millions of people who visit Google during any week.
The government believes the search requests will help prove that Internet filters aren't strong enough to prevent children from accessing online pornography and other potentially offensive Web sites.
Yahoo Inc., Microsoft Inc.'s MSN and Time Warner Inc.'s American Online already have provided some of the search engine information sought by the Justice Department. All three companies say they complied without relinquishing their users' private information.
But Google has steadfastly refused to hand over the requested information, a defiant stance that the company reaffirmed in a brief that depicts the Bush administration as heavy-handed snoops and technological rubes.
In one particularly scathing section, Google's lawyers ridiculed the government's belief that a list of search requests would help it understand the behavior of Web surfers.
"This statement is so uninformed as to be nonsensical," the lawyers wrote.
Although the Justice Department says it doesn't want any of the personal information, Google contends its cooperation would set off privacy alarms and scare away some of the traffic that has driven its success.
"If users believe that the text of their search queries into Google's search engine may become public knowledge, it only logically follows that they will be less likely to use the service," Google's lawyers wrote.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which is opposing the Bush administration's effort to revive the online child protection law, also filed a brief Friday in support of Google.
"This subpoena is the latest example of government overreaching, in which the government apparently believes it can demand that private entities turn over all sorts of information about their customers just because the government asserts that it needs the information," the ACLU's lawyers wrote.
Google also said it doubts the government would be available to shield the requested information from public scrutiny. The company maintains the data sought by the government could provide its rivals and Web site operators with valuable insights about how its search engine works.
As it battles the Justice Department, Google is cooperating with China's Communist government by censoring some of the search results that the company produces in a country that restricts free speech.
That odd juxtaposition has caused civil rights activists to applaud Google for defying the U.S. government while the champions of human rights and free speech jeer the company for bending to China's will.