A federal judge said he intends to order Google Inc to turn over some of its Internet records to the US Justice Department, but expressed reservations about requiring the company to divulge some of its most sensitive data -- the actual requests that people enter into its popular search engine.
US District Judge James Ware told the US Justice Department on Tuesday it can expect to get at least some of the information sought from Google as part of the Bush administration's effort to revive a law meant to shield children from online pornography.
But Ware stressed he was "particularly concerned" about the Justice Department's demand for a random sample of search requests entered into Google's Internet-leading search engine.
The judge said he did not want to do anything to create the perception that Internet search engines and other large online databases could become tools for government surveillance. He seemed less concerned about requiring Google to supply the government with a random list of Web sites indexed by the company.
Ware said he planned to issue a written ruling quickly.
After the 90-minute hearing, Google attorney Nicole Wong said the company was pleased with Ware's thoughtful questions.
Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller said the agency looks forward to Ware's decision.
"We hope his opinion will demonstrate the government's belief that this info would be helpful in protecting the nation's youth against potentially harmful material," he said.
During the hearing, another Google attorney, Albert Gidari, tried to persuade Ware that the government could get virtually all the information it wanted from publicly accessible services offered by Amazon.com Inc.'s Alexa.com and InfoSpace Inc's Dogpile.com. Alexa tracks Web traffic patterns and Dogpile compiles search results from Google, Yahoo, MSN and several other search engines.
Barton Carter, a communications and law professor at Boston University, said the concerns raised by Ware should be heartening to privacy rights advocates, but cautioned against reading too much into the judge's comments until his written order.
"What's going to be important is whether he limits the information [given to the government] and whether he explains why he drew the line where he did," Carter said.
Investors seemed encouraged by Tuesday's developments as Google's recently slumping stock price surged US$14.10, or 4.2 percent, to close at US$351.16 on the NASDAQ Stock Market.
Tuesday marked the first time that Google and the Justice Department have faced off in court over a government subpoena issued nearly seven months ago.
The Justice Department initially wanted billions of search requests and Web site addresses from Google for a study that the government believes will prove filtering software doesn't prevent children from viewing sexually explicit material on the Internet.
Google refused to hand over the information, even as three other major search engines turned over some of the requested data. Google maintained the government's request would intrude on its users' privacy and its trade secrets.
Google's protests prompted the government to scale back its requests dramatically. Justice Department attorney Joel McElvain told Ware on Tuesday that the government now wants a random sampling of 50,000 Web site addresses indexed by Google and the text of 5,000 random search requests.