Whether debating abortion rights, illegal National Security Agency wiretaps on U.S. citizens or the USA Patriot Act, it’s clear that in the eyes of the Bush administration, an individual’s right to privacy is fuzzy at best. The most recent attempts to challenge privacy rights come from the federal government’s subpoena of various search engines. Although America Online, Microsoft and Yahoo! recently complied with the subpoena to release public search records of their users, Google is vehemently fighting the subpoena, citing its duty to protect customers’ privacy and their own trade secrets. The subpoena itself would be unlikely to create the doomsday invasion of privacy that some defenders of Google envision, but neither is it insignificant. Google acquiescence to the government’s demand for search records would be just another victory for an executive branch fixed on expanding its powers over individual rights.
An initial injunction and several subsequent rulings in federal court have prevented the enforcement of the Child Online Protection Act of 1998. The act would prohibit any website that “makes any communication for commercial purposes that is available to any minor and that includes any material that is harmful to minors,” a claim that might sound reasonable on the surface. Because of the impossibility of ensuring that no child ever accesses a company’s website, however, the law could lead to the restriction of any content that may not be child-appropriate. Most recently, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the injunction against the act’s enforcement in 2004, finding that the act violates individuals’ freedom of expression. The Bush administration claims Google’s search records will help it finally prove its case that the act is not only constitutional but necessary to fill in the gaps where parental supervision and search filters fail.
For now, the subpoena itself may appear harmless. Provided it only provides the administration with unidentifiable public search data, there’s little more the federal government can do than what it has already announced. But with the Bush administration losing trust by the day, there’s reason to be suspicious. This case could be an important check on the Bush administration’s attempts to broaden the executive branch’s powers, and it will certainly be among the first in forming the boundaries the government can and cannot cross with respect to individuals’ privacy on the Internet.
Certainly, Google’s acquiescence to censorship by the Chinese government hints that the company’s much-touted slogan – “don’t be evil” – is not the overarching principle the company’s fans make it out to be. In this country, however, Google has stood up when other search engines have caved. Even though this specific subpoena poses little immediate threat to individuals’ right to privacy, it will carry a weight that outlasts its media buzz.