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When the law chases the Internet

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Both Congress and the courts have always played catch up with Internet crime, from credit-card theft to child porn. The fast pace of new Web software provides a challenge to slow-moving law. The latest example: a court order against Web giant Google.

Google Inc. hasn't committed a crime, but it did argue before a federal judge in recent days that it should not be ordered to turn over some general information about personal search logs to the Department of Justice. Federal investigators say they need the information to help make a case that Web porn is a threat to children. On Tuesday, a federal judge sided with the government.

Google has warned that, despite its huge database of information on users, it cannot go down "the slippery slope" of letting government mine that data for possible crimes, both for the sake of customer privacy and to keep its technology secret.

The case points up the public's contrary expectations about the Internet: Americans want this information highway to be private, but they also want government to have enough access to it to protect them, and society at large, from criminal acts. The very nature of the Internet as a loose, private affiliation of cooperating computer networks - unlike, say, a public highway - can make it a legal twilight zone. Finding a balance between Internet privacy and protection isn't always clear in current law or to lawmakers who must quickly write new laws.

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