SAN JOSE, Calif. — Google Inc.'s legal showdown with the Bush administration over the right to protect the privacy of its audience and trade secrets appears to be tilting in the Internet search engine's favor, even though a federal judge has signaled he will order the company to turn over some records to the government.
U.S. District Court Judge James Ware repeatedly emphasized his sensitivity to Google's concerns during a court hearing yesterday. It concluded with Ware's saying he intended to give the U.S. Justice Department a peek at a sliver of the online search engine leader's vast database.
Just how much information Google will be required to share won't be known until Ware issues his written ruling, which he said he would do quickly.
But the government won't get anything close to what it initially sought last summer when it served Google a subpoena demanding billions of search requests and Web-site addresses as part of the Bush administration's effort to revive a law meant to shield children from online pornography.
With Google's staunch resistance to that request attracting widespread attention, the Justice Department scaled back its demand to a random sampling of 5,000 random search requests and 50,000 Web-site addresses contained in its search engine.
Those concessions, spelled out during yesterday's hearing, lessened Google's concerns about its information's becoming part of a public court record, but didn't ease the company's worries that supplying the government with a list of actual search requests might scare off some of its audience.
Ware also balked at the Justice Department's request for Google search requests, saying he didn't 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.
Google attorney Nicole Wong said the Mountain View, Calif.-based company liked what it heard during yesterday's hearing. "We're very encouraged by the judge's thoughtful questions and comments," she said. "They reflected our concerns about user privacy and the scope of the government's subpoena request."
Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller said the agency looked forward to Ware's decision. "We hope his opinion will demonstrate the government's belief that this information 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 and several other leading search engines.
T. 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 he releases his 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.
Yesterday marked the first time that Google and the Justice Department faced off in court over a government subpoena issued nearly seven months ago.
Google's opposition to the government contrasted with the cooperation of the Internet's other largest search engines - Yahoo Inc., Microsoft Corp.'s MSN and Time Warner Inc.'s America Online. All three of those companies said they complied with the Justice Department subpoena without compromising their users' privacy.
The Justice Department plans to use the search requests to show how easy it is for online pornographers to fool Internet filters, hoping to demonstrate the need for a tougher law to protect children from the material. A trial on that issue is scheduled to begin Oct. 23 in Pennsylvania.
Although the government doesn't want Google to turn over anything that would identify a person making a search request, Gidari told Ware the content of certain queries often contains sensitive information about finances, Social Security numbers and sexual preferences.
Steve Mansfield, chief executive of a recently launched search engine called PreFound.com, said the entire industry would get a lift if Ware prevented the government from getting a glimpse at Google's search requests.
"This entire case has become about public perception," Mansfield said. "If people perceive that what they are putting into a search engine isn't private, that's going to be a big negative for everyone."