Google has been refusing the request since a subpoena was issued last August, even as three of its competitors agreed to comply, according to court documents made public this week. Google asserts that the request is unnecessary, overly broad, would be onerous to comply with, would jeopardize its trade secrets and could expose identifying information about its users.
The dispute with Google comes as the US government is moving aggressively on several fronts to obtain data on Internet activity to achieve its law-enforcement goals, from domestic security to the prosecution of online crime. Under the anti-terrorism law known as the USA Patriot Act, for example, the Justice Department has demanded records on library patrons' Internet use.
The government's move in the Google case, however, is different in its aims. Rather than seeking data on individuals, it says, it is trying to establish a profile of Internet use that will help it defend the Child Online Protection Act, a 1998 law that would impose tough criminal penalties on individuals whose Web sites carried material deemed harmful to minors.
The government's motion to compel Google's compliance was filed on Wednesday in U.S. District Court in San Jose, California, near Google's headquarters. The subpoena and the government's motion were reported on Thursday by The San Jose Mercury News.
In addition to records of a week's worth of search queries, which could amount to billions of search terms, the Google subpoena seeks a random list of a million Web addresses in its index.
Charles Miller, a spokesman for the Justice Department, said on Thursday that three Google competitors in Internet search technology - America Online, Yahoo and MSN, Microsoft's online service - had complied with subpoenas in the case.
Miller declined to say exactly how the data would be used, but according to the government's legal filings, the data would help estimate the prevalence of online material that could be deemed harmful to minors and the effectiveness of filtering software in blocking it.
The government's motion calls for Google to comply with its subpoena within 21 days of court approval.
Although the government has modified its demands in talks with Google since last year, Google made it clear on Thursday that it would continue to fight. "Google is not a party to this lawsuit, and their demand for information overreaches," said Nicole Wong, the company's associate general counsel, referring to government lawyers. "We had lengthy discussions with them to try to resolve this, but were not able to, and we intend to resist their motion vigorously."
Danny Sullivan, editor of SearchEngineWatch, an online industry newsletter, questioned the need for such a subpoena. "Is this really something the government needs Google to help them with?" he said. "They could go create their own searches."