EFF being stymied in effort to explore Justice Department/Google coziness

The Electronic Frontier Foundation wants to know all there is to know about contacts between Google and a Justice Department official involved in a highly charged 2006 government-snooping dispute that ensnared the search giant. That DoJ official, Jane Horvath, was subsequently hired by Google last year as senior privacy counsel.

(Update: This statement just arrived from a Google spokesperson: "Google did not work with Jane Horvath on this issue when she was at DoJ." ... Don't know what to make of that other than, if accurate, it would seem as though the DoJ could have told the EFF the same thing six months ago. ... Next day update here: EFF says that reply completely misses the point.)

The government has for six months refused Freedom of Information Act requests from EFF to see correspondence between Horvath and Google for the period the former was employed as the DoJ's first chief privacy and civil liberties officer (insert laugh track here), according to a suit filed yesterday by the EFF.

From the EFF press release:

Jane C. Horvath was named the DOJ's first Chief Privacy and Civil Liberties Officer in February of 2006. At that time, Google was fighting a massive DOJ subpoena asking for the text of every query entered into the search engine over a one-week period. The DOJ request - part of a court battle over the constitutionality of a law regulating adult materials on the Internet - ignited a national debate about Internet privacy.

The DOJ later scaled back its request, and a judge eventually allowed access to only 5,000 random Google search queries. In a subsequent news article, Horvath was publicly critical of the DOJ's initial subpoena, saying she had privacy concerns about the massive request for information. Horvath's new job as Google's Senior Privacy Counsel was announced in August of 2007.

"Google has an unprecedented ability to collect and retain very personal information about millions of Americans, and the DOJ and other law enforcement agencies have developed a huge appetite for that information," said EFF Senior Counsel David Sobel. "We want to know what discussions DOJ's top privacy lawyer had with Google before leaving her government position to join the company."

While Horvath's career path represented a sequence of events guaranteed to raise eyebrows, it's also not clear from the release what exactly the EFF is suspecting it might find in the Horvath/Google correspondence, so I asked for clarification from Sobel.

"It's a request that we very well might have made under any circumstances - the DOJ's chief privacy official's contacts with the world's largest private repository of info about online activity," he writes. "The fact that she ended up working for Google made it all the more intriguing to know what kinds of contacts there were. We're not after anything in particular, just a window into the relationship between these two powerful entities vis-à-vis privacy issues."

What requires no explanation is why the Justice Department has refused to comply with the EFF's request for what is clearly public information: the Bush Administration's fetish for secrecy and bedrock conviction that it operates above the law.

The Justice Department told Associated Press that it had no comment on the matter.

I've asked Google for a response. Don't expect anything meaningful. (About that I was apparently wrong; see update above.)

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