Justice Dept. subpoenas go far beyond search companies

Observers calls subpoenas a fishing expedition, as DOJ seeks wide range of information from ISPs, security companies, and filter makers.

The Justice Dept. has sent out to subpoenas to far more companies than Yahoo, Google, Microsoft and AOL. In fact, Information Week reports, at least 34 companies have received subpoenas from Justice as part of their discovery for a lawsuit challenging the Child Online Protection Act.

Other major companies receiving the subpoenas include AT&T, Comcast Cable, Cox Communications, EarthLink, LookSmart, SBC Communications (then separate from AT&T), Symantec, and Verizon. There were a few objections, Information Week said, but those were largely routine and defensive. But several observers said the massive number of subpoenas make the government's actions seem like a fishing expedition.

The subpoenas directed at security software companies asked for a substantial amount of information, including any and all documents that fall into 29 separate categories, including the kinds of content filtering products or services offered, the number of customers using those products or services, how users configure their filters, how filters get updated, R&D spending on such products, the methodology used to generate blacklisted or filtered sites, and pretty much any data gathered that relates to the use of filters. "What they are doing, from our perspective, is engaging in a massive fishing expedition in an attempt to find some shred of evidence that they think can change a result they didn't like, which is that COPA violates the First Amendment," says Aden Fine, an attorney for the ACLU.

Business attorney Stephen Ryan agreed:

"I'm not surprised that the Google piece looks like the tip of an iceberg," he says. "But it is sort of surprising that they're using their authority this broadly."

Ryan acknowledges that government subpoenas place undue burdens on companies every day, noting that there are probably scores of attorneys at large ISPs who do nothing but process subpoenas. He suggests that as information technology produces more information, the government will want greater access to that data.

With regard to the financial impact of subpoenas, Ryan notes, "If you look at the Office of Regulatory Affairs at Office of Management and Budget, there's something called the Paperwork Reduction Act. And there's supposed to be an evaluation of the burden that a government law or regulation will make on the public. I'll bet there's never been a burden analysis of what they're doing."

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