That point was hammered home in recent court filings by the federal government demanding that the Internet’s major search engines turn over vast amounts of data about what people have searched for.
Mountain View’s Google, the industry leader, has promised to fight the order, which is part of the Bush administration’s effort to resuscitate laws protecting children from Internet pornography, blocked by the U.S. Supreme Court two years ago.
Yahoo and Microsoft have complied with the request, turning over millions of search queries to the government, although both firms insist they did not violate their users’ privacy.
The government’s request and Google’s subsequent refusal set up a potential court battle that could have major privacy implications for Internet users and also could help define how online companies protect their customers in future inquiries.
If the government prevails against Google, privacy advocates fear that the floodgates will open to even more demands for search data. Ultimately, they say, the snooping would have a chilling effect on how people use the Internet.