A US district court judge has ruled that it is unconstitutional for the US government to send secret letters demanding search records from search engines. A provision of the Patriot Act has allowed for such letters to be sent to search engines, ISPs and others by the Federal Bureau Of Investigation — and made it illegal for companies getting such FBI demands to even reveal the requests at all in general. Today’s ruling found that violated free speech rights.
Judge deals blow to Patriot Act from News.com and Judge fails to see patriotic side of FBI gags on Net service providers from Good Morning Silicon Valley have good rundowns on the decision, which is expected to be appealed. It’s not clear whether companies that received such demands can now reveal them or if they must wait until the case works through higher courts.
Have search companies even received such demands? We don’t know, because the law would have prevented them from saying so. Indeed, one of my favorite part of John Battelle’s The Search is when he covers the Patriot Act and how it applies to search engines. He asks Google’s Sergey Brin in 2005 about the Patriot Act and Google’s stance on it. Sergey replies that he hadn’t read it but after hearing the issues thinks "concerns are overstated" and adds:
There has never been an incident that I am aware of where any search company, or Google for that matter, has somehow divulged information about a searcher.
John then notes to Sergey that any case like this under the Patriot Act wouldn’t come to light because of the secrecy provisions. That got Sergey to say that he felt the act became a "problem," then Google would change its policy.
Google famously stood up to the US Justice Department’s demands for some pretty anonymous search data back in 2006, so I suspect that if Google had been getting a lot of Patriot Act requests, they’ve have been noisy about it despite the law. But then again, if the law finally and fully changes, we won’t have to wonder about requests to the major search engines.
By the way, I’d embed the quote from John’s book with Google’s handy new quote embedding tool that we covered today in Google Book Search Adds My Library, Popular Passages, Embedded Quotes & More. Unfortunately, his publisher doesn’t allow the book in Google Book Search (I can’t find his post about this, but John himself wishes it were there). However, you can see the actual page itself (page 202) over at Amazon. Use this link.