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In Case About Google's Secrets, Yours Are Safe

New York Times

The Justice Department went to court last week to try to force Google, by far the world's largest Internet search engine, to turn over an entire week's worth of searches. The move, which Google is fighting, has alarmed its users, enraged privacy advocates, changed some people's Internet search habits and set off a debate about how much privacy one can expect on the Web.

But the case itself, according to people involved in it and scholars who are following it, has almost nothing to do with privacy. It will turn, instead, on serious but relatively routine questions about trade secrets and civil procedure.

In its only extended discussion of its reasons for fighting the subpoena, a Google lawyer told the Justice Department in October that complying would be bad for business. "Google objects," the lawyer, Ashok Ramani, wrote, "because to comply with the request could endanger its crown-jewel trade secrets."

"Google's acceding to the request would suggest that it is willing to reveal information about those who use its services," he wrote. "This is not a perception that Google can accept."

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Google has not yet filed a response in court, and it has not discussed the case publicly beyond a brief statement citing government overreaching. Its fullest explanation of its position was in Mr. Ramani's letter in October.

Google objected, Mr. Ramani said, because the fit between what the government seeks and what it seeks to prove is poor. He also said that collecting and providing the information was burdensome and that the government could find it elsewhere.

Mr. Ramani did say that "one could envision scenarios" where Internet searches alone could reveal private information, but he provided no examples. But Google's main argument was that its "highly proprietary" trade secrets could be jeopardized.