A legal standoff between the US Justice Department and Internet search giant Google has added fuel to an already heated debate over the government's right of access to potentially personal data.
Google's decision to "vigorously" oppose a government subpoena to turn over records on millions of its users' search queries drew applause from privacy and legal watchdogs, although some also questioned the search engine's policy of retaining vast amounts of user data.
"This subpoena is really overreaching and outrageous," said Ari Schwartz, associate director of the Washington-based Center for Democracy and Technology.
"We are glad that Google is resisting and we hope others would in the situation as well," Schwartz said.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) also cheered Google's stand in the wake of decisions by rival technology groups Yahoo and Microsoft to comply with similar government subpoenas.
The ACLU contends the government is trying to extricate private information out of Google under the emotional guise of seeking to protect children from pornography.
"A lot of people are swallowing the government's whole line, and that is sad," ACLU representative Emily Whitfield said.
"We are not representing the porn industry. We are representing Web sites with socially valuable material," she said.
The government says it needs the data to defend the constitutionality of the Child Online Protection Act in a federal court in Pennsylvania.
The 1998 law, which has been challenged in various courts, imposes tough criminal penalties on individuals whose Web sites carry material deemed harmful to minors.
Despite Google's stand, other firms have met the government's demands, but said that private information was still safeguarded.
"We did comply with their request for data in regards to helping protect children in a way that ensured we also protected the privacy of our customers," Microsoft said in a statement.
"We were able to share aggregated query data [not search results] that did not include any personally identifiable information at their request," it said.
Yahoo cooperated "on a limited basis" with the subpoena but did not hand over "personally identifiable" information," said Yahoo spokeswoman Mary Osako.
"In our opinion, this is not a privacy issue," Osako said. "We are rigorous defenders of our users' privacy."
Google argued that the subpoena was "unduly burdensome," especially given that the company was not even a party to the litigation in Pennsylvania.
"This issue is one of burden and also of feeling bullied," said Susan Crawford, a cyberlaw expert and assistant professor at Cardozo Law School.
"This is an unbelievably large request for data. There is also a trade secret issue, in that Google might be revealing what they decide to save in particular files," she said.
The Google case comes with the government already under fire from civil rights groups over warrantless domestic wiretaps carried out by the National Security Agency with the approval of President George W. Bush.
Although the data requested from Google would not identify individual users, there are concerns that by acceding to the subpoena, Google would open the door to demands for more personal information in the future.
Danny Sullivan, an Internet consultant and founder of Search Engine Watch, argued that the government was asking for more than it could ever handle.