Justice Department Demands Data From 34 Internet Companies

Government says information on Internet surfing and searching is needed to defend the Child Online Protection Act.

April 3, 2006

4 Min Read
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The government insists it needs vast amounts of data from Internet search companies to prove that the 1998 Child Online Protection Act is necessary and constitutional, and its highly publicized subpoenas of America Online, Google, MSN, and Yahoo are only part of that effort. It turns out that the federal government's data gathering activity is broader and more extensive than previously reported: The U.S. Department of Justice has demanded information from at least 34 Internet service providers, Internet search companies, and security software firms.

For businesses, the subpoenas raise the issue of whether the feds should be able to use their data so it can prove a case in court, regardless of how much work and money it takes to comply with the requests.

The Justice Department disclosed last week it has issued subpoenas to companies that include AT&T, Comcast Cable, Cox Communications, EarthLink, LookSmart, SBC Communications (before the merger with AT&T), Symantec, and Verizon, according to copies of subpoenas InformationWeek obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. A Justice spokesman wouldn't say which companies cooperated with the government or fought the requests, nor would he discuss whether the information submitted was useful.

Data Demands

The Justice Department asked Internet companies for:

>> Search keywords and URLs to better understand how people search for porn

>> Blacklist details to find out how search and filtering companies determine which sites should be blocked

>> Studies on the effectiveness of content filtering

>> Business plans to see ad campaigns and marketing related to content filtering

The act imposes a $50,000 fine and up to six months in jail on those who publish material "harmful to children" online. The act has been challenged in court as unconstitutional, and the Justice Department is trying to support it by proving that Internet filtering software doesn't protect children from Internet porn. The bulk of the subpoenas were directed at ISPs and makers of Internet content-filtering software.

Some companies that got subpoenas did object, although it appears none fought the government in court like Google. In an E-mail sent to the Justice Department last July, Fernando Laguarda, an attorney for Cablevision Systems, called the government's request "overly broad, vague, ambitious, and unduly burdensome."Dan Jude, president of filtering software company Security Software Systems, says his 12-person firm had to put in a lot of work to comply with the department's request. "It was a pain," he says. "I don't have exact figures, but it took 40-plus hours to put stuff together."

And Aden Fine, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, which is one of the organizations that sued to block the act on constitutional grounds, calls the subpoenas a "massive fishing expedition."

Jude contends the government's efforts to prop up the act are misguided. "It's a waste of time," he says. The problem is that it would be ineffective because half of the Web servers with explicit content are located in other countries, he says. Jude and others also complain that Justice is trying to turn them into government research arms and content police, a role that's not appropriate for ISPs and other Internet companies.

Filter First?

Of course, Jude sees an easy answer to the child protection issue: filtering software, which his company sells. "The great thing about the technology is that it allows parents to make the determination of what they want their kids to be able to do and not to do," he says.One attorney not involved in the case suggests that as information technology produces more information, the government will want greater access to that data. And if that's allowed, it will cost more companies time and money and possibly customers. "I'm not surprised that the Google piece looks like the tip of an iceberg," says Stephen Ryan, a partner in the government and regulatory practice at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips. "But it is sort of surprising that they're using their authority this broadly."

The issue of the act will be decided in court. But the government's demand for massive amounts of information on Internet surfing and searching activity may make citizens more cautious about how they use the Internet and search engines. What's not clear is how that will protect children.

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