Google carves a middle path on privacy

Google's corporate motto is "Don't be evil."

But the Internet search-engine company recently found itself defending the privacy of alleged pedophiles and racists against São Paulo's attorney general.

The Brazilian government wanted the names of suspected criminals using Google's "Orkut," the most popular social networking site (think MySpace or Facebook) in Brazil.

The nasty fight pitting two powerful and implacable sides against each other climaxed last Thursday with a judge's order: Hand over the data or face a daily fine of $900,000. Google has complied. In doing so, the company moved a step closer to establishing a global legal precedent on how Internet firms cooperate – or not – with government requests for information about Web users. It's a contentious issue that involves principles of personal privacy, political and commercial free speech, and fighting crime – be it pornography, pedophilia, racism, or terrorist plots.

Some human rights and free-speech groups hailed the case because, unlike in China, Google forced a showdown. By refusing initially to comply with local government authorities who failed to follow the correct legal procedures, they forced Brazil to deal with the American company rather than the Brazilian subsidiary. That, they say, is an important marker.

"Google's decision to make the legal procedures go through the American justice system is a good thing," says Julien Pain, head of the Internet freedom desk at Reporters Without Borders.

"This way, if you make a request to Google in the US, the request can be supervised by American justice," says Mr. Pain. In this case, a Brazilian judge ruled on the issue first. But the process established by Google, he says, is "crucial when Google has to deal with repressive regimes. If a Chinese or a Syrian judge asks for information about a dissident or a journalist, it's important that Google could say, 'No.' "

Google's battle ended last week when a Brazilian judge ruled it must hand over evidence that could help police track pedophiles and racists on the Orkut site. The site was created by Google in 2004 and has become one of the most popular sites in Brazil. Some 16 million people have created a profile on it, or almost half of all Brazilians who have access to the Internet.

Google, however, refused to hand over the IP addresses and other data because the information is stored on US servers. The Brazilian court documents were incorrectly addressed to the subsidiary Google Brasil, rather than the California-based parent company Google Inc., Google officials said.

That stance infuriated Brazilian human rights groups who counted more than 40,000 images of child porn posted on Orkut between Jan. 30 and Aug. 22. Thousands more communities dedicated to racism, violence, anti-Semitism, and cruelty to animals were also created, says Thiago Tavares, the president of Safernet, a human rights group. "Google took many pages off the air, but the criminals just put them up again and so you need to identify them so they can be punished," he says. "Criminals understand that Google is a safe haven for them because here they are immune."

But some Internet experts say that judgment is harsh, and compare Google's stance in Brazil to that of rivals Microsoft, Yahoo, or AOL in China. Those and other Internet companies freely handed over data to Chinese authorities attempting to censor critics, according to a report published by Human Rights Watch last month. Here, Google demanded Brazilian authorities follow established legal practices.

"This was important because it shows the need for contestable processes that need to be replicated elsewhere," says Arvind Ganesan at Human Rights Watch in Washington. "The real controversy has to do with closed countries where you don't have the prospect of a fair judicial proceeding. What the Google experience [in Brazil] shows is that while neither side is really happy, each side had their chance to hear and be adjudicated. It shows that when a process exists, people use it."

Other experts say they hope the Brazil case will cause governments to think twice before demanding information. "A process in which both parties have a shot at contesting a request, and that is reasonably objective, will make people who are arbitrarily censoring more cautious and that is a good thing," Mr. Ganesan says. "The fundamental issue is for closed countries to figure out a way for both sides to be heard."

This is not the first time Google has challenged a government trying to gain access to its data. Earlier this year, the US Justice Department sought a random sample of 1 million Web addresses and 1 million search queries from a one-week period. It wanted to use the data to prove that software designed to block online pornography was ineffective. The Justice Department made similar requests of other Internet companies, including Yahoo and Microsoft, but Google was the only one to challenge the request in court. A California judged granted part of the US government's request in March.

Nicole Wong, associate general counsel for Google Inc., says, "It is and always has been our intention to be as cooperative in the investigation and prosecution of crimes as we possibly can, while being careful to balance the interests of our users and the request from the authorities."

She adds, "We have and will continue to provide Brazilian authorities with information on users who abuse the Orkut service, if their requests are reasonable and follow an appropriate legal process."

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