Google Gets Nearly 6,000 Data Requests From Uncle Sam

Google Oct. 25 upgraded its Transparency Report tool to include the number of worldwide government data requests and product take-downs.

For all of the griping the U.S. government does about Google's size and influence in the Internet sector, the institution sure likes to tap the search engine provider on the shoulder a lot for information.

Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) Oct. 25 revealed that the U.S. government made a stunning 5,950 requests for data on Google user accounts or products from Jan. 1 to June 30 this year, a 29 percent hike from the previous six months.

For perspective, the U.S. government issued more than three times as many requests for information, mostly concerning criminal matters, than India, whose government made 1,739 queries for data. Google said the increase is natural, as the company adds more Web services and users as time goes on.

The data was released as part of a feature upgrade to the search engine provider's Transparency Report software, an interactive tool Google launched in April 2010 to fight censorship and inform citizens about requests for data and content removal from the world's governments.

The move is also shrewdly calculated to influence reform in the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which allows law enforcement to access a person's Internet activities without the approval of a court.

"We believe that providing this level of detail highlights the need to modernize laws like the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which regulates government access to user information and was written 25 years ago-long before the average person had ever heard of e-mail," explained Senior Policy Analyst Dorothy Chou.

Google, which revealed that those inquiries spanned 11,057 individual users and their accounts, said it completely or partially complied with 93 percent of the requests, most of which were due to investigations of crimes.

The company also received 92 requests from Uncle Sam to remove 757 pieces of content, such as YouTube videos and content from Gmail, Blogger and other sources, from its search results.

That was less than half the number of requests for removal from Brazil's government, which made 224 queries. Google attributed the high number for content removal in Brazil relative to other countries to the popularity of Google's orkut social networking Website.

Google complied with 63 percent of requests for content removal, compared with 67 percent in Brazil. Most of the "take down" requests, as they are known in Internet industry parlance, are due to defamation. Others concern allegations that the content violates laws prohibiting hate speech or pornography. Google explained why it didn't comply with some requests:

"We received a request from a local law enforcement agency to remove YouTube videos of police brutality, which we did not remove," the company explained. "Separately, we received requests from a different local law enforcement agency for removal of videos allegedly defaming law enforcement officials. We did not comply with those requests, which we have categorized in this Report as defamation requests."

Many other countries have their quirks or anomalies that affect the way Google incorporates (or doesn't include) data. For example, two requests resulted in the removal of 1,814 items from AdWords for violating Norwegian marketing laws. In India, Google received requests from law enforcement agencies to remove YouTube videos that displayed protests against social leaders or used offensive language in reference to religious leaders.

It's unclear how effective the Transparency Report will be beyond helping consumers distinguish which governments are the greediest for information about criminal matters, or which countries like to have Google zap information from their search indexes.

What is abundantly clear is that the report is another one of the company's exercises in Big Data. That's the newfangled euphemism for business intelligence, a market niche that is growing thanks to the proliferation of data created by social networks and other information sources that are moving increasingly online.

Indeed, for the first time ever, Google is making the raw data from the report available for export in various machine-readable formats. The idea is that developers and researchers can revisualize the data in different ways, or cross-check the data with information from other organizations to reach different conclusions.