SAN JOSE, Calif. -- In town to talk with kids about respecting intellectual property, U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez found himself addressing questions about the government's respect for online privacy. In the middle of a legal dispute with Google ( GOOG) over access to search records, the government has come under criticism from consumer privacy advocates. Gonzalez sought to assure critics that the government was trying to strike a "good faith" balance between privacy interests and protecting the public. Even though a federal judge recently restricted the amount of data the government will potentially have access to in the Google case, Gonzalez appeared unabashed by the government's request. Indeed, in determining the balance between privacy protection and how much information the government will request from private information keepers, the Department of Justice, instead of setting its own limits, will take its lead from Congress and the courts, he said. "Sometimes the courts will agree, and sometimes they will disagree," he said. The issue of how much information private companies should hand over to the federal government has come up repeatedly in recent years. Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, numerous airlines handed over passenger data to federal transportation officials seeking to determine patterns that might lead to finding potential hijackers. More recently, the Department of Justice has sought data from Internet search engines last year in an effort to determine the prevalence of pornography on the Web. The effort was part of the government's move to defend the Child Online Protection Act, which bans access to material that could be "harmful to children." While Google has resisted the justice department's request, other Internet search engines, such as those operated by Yahoo! ( YHOO), Microsoft ( MSFT) and Time Warner's ( TWX) America Online, complied with it. And they're not alone: the DOJ has subpoenaed 34 other companies for related data, according to published reports.
The companies that have complied with the information request have also drawn criticism from consumer rights advocates. But the companies have generally denied that they have released -- and the government has denied that it has requested -- any information that would identify individuals. But privacy advocates say the search terms themselves, which were part of the government's request, could reveal personal details. Justice officials, including Gonzalez, said they were unaware of how many companies the agency has subpoenaed for information related to the online pornography case. In terms of online piracy, department officials said that China remains a major problem and a focus of the administration's efforts. Some 70% of the counterfeited goods seized by U.S. Customs last year originated in China, according to Justice Department officials traveling with Gonzalez. That was up from 63% the prior year.