Google Finds Government Requests for Personal Information Increasing

Google is getting more government requests to remove blog posts or YouTube videos, or to turn over personal information. This is placing pressure on free speech rights.

The number of requests that Google receives from governments around the world to remove what they argue is "offensive" content posted by users continues to increase, according to the search company's "Google Transparency Report."

The June 18 report details the number of information requests that Google has received and describes whether the search company complied with the requests. Such requests for information typically pit the privacy rights of individuals against investigations by government authorities around the world, causing emotional arguments on both sides.

"Unfortunately, what we've seen over the past couple years has been troubling, and today is no different," Dorothy Chou, a Google senior policy analyst wrote in a post on Google's blog about the new report. "When we started releasing this data in 2010, we also added annotations with some of the more interesting stories behind the numbers. We noticed that government agencies from different countries would sometimes ask us to remove political content that our users had posted on our services. We hoped this was an aberration. But now we know it's not."

The latest Transparency Report is the fifth biannual report issued by the company.

"And just like every other time before, we've been asked to take down political speech," Chou wrote. "It's alarming not only because free expression is at risk, but because some of these requests come from countries you might not suspect€”Western democracies not typically associated with censorship."

No specific requests or information are presented in the Transparency Report, but Chou described two general governmental requests.

"For example, in the second half of last year, Spanish regulators asked us to remove 270 search results that linked to blogs and articles in newspapers referencing individuals and public figures, including mayors and public prosecutors," Chou wrote. "In Poland, we received a request from a public institution to remove links to a site that criticized it. We didn't comply with either of these requests."

The highest number of data requests for one nation in the period June through December 2011, the latest period for which the data is available, came from government agencies inside the United States, according to the data. Government agencies in the United States requested data 6,321 times during the period, an increase of 37 percent from the same period one year ago when there were 4,601 requests. Google complied with the requests partially or fully 93 percent of the time in 2011 and 94 percent of the time in 2010, according to the report.

Other governments that made the highest number of requests to Google between June and December 2011 were:

· India: 2,207 requests, which were complied with 66 percent of the time, up from 1,699 one year prior.

· Brazil: 1,615 requests, which were complied with 90 percent of the time, down from 1,615 one year prior.

· United Kingdom: 1,455 requests, which were complied with 64 percent of the time, up from 1,162 one year prior.

· Germany: 1,426 requests, which were complied with 45 percent of the time, up from 768 one year prior.

Google began issuing its Transparency Reports in 2010 to reveal information about requests by governments for data and content removal.

One privacy expert, Eva Galperin, of the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation, said her privacy rights group has been supportive of Google's actions to issue the Transparency Reports.

"What's really interesting about the [reports] is that Google is the only company that does this," Galperin said. "Google is willing to tell us" about the requests they receive.

"Where is Facebook's 'Transparency Report?' It simply doesn't exist," Galperin added.

What this also means is that governments are likely making such information requests to other companies, but those companies are not telling us about them, said Galperin. "We don't know if they are handing their information over and if they are telling their users about it."

The only way to know if these kinds of requests are happening and endangering our privacy is to track them over time, like Google is doing with these reports, said Galperin. "It shows us how much governments are relying on this kind of information today in ways they didn't before."

The requests could be asking for the removal of blog posts or other information from Websites, requests for the removal of copyrighted content through the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DCMA), or could even involve investigations about crime or terrorism.

"We have no way of knowing what the requests are, but we can see that the number of requests from governments is growing," said Galperin. "And we can see that Google is complying with these requests most of the time. At the same time, I would be hesitant to be that critical of Google because no one else does this at all in sharing this information. You can see that other governments around the world are discovering that Google is an enormous cache of user data that could be useful to them."