Google, target of worldwide surveillance and takedown requests

Google, target of worldwide surveillance and takedown requests

Google continued to demonstrate its commitment to transparency on Monday by releasing fresh statistics on the number of times it has disclosed private user data to a government, or removed content at government request. The country-by-country report covers the second half of 2010.

During that period, the United States was the top requester of user information (4,601 requests), while Brazil was the leader in takedowns, with 263 requests leading to the removal of 12,363 items.

Google has committed to releasing such data at six-month intervals, and the data now goes back 18 months. US data requests were up about 30 percent in the second half of 2010 compared with the same period in 2009. Brazil, which requested the most data in the second half of 2009, actually saw its data requests fall since then.

For the first time, Google is also disclosing the fraction of user data requests it has complied with in addition to the total number of requests (it has always provided compliance statistics on takedowns). It complied with the highest fraction—94 percent—of American requests. It also complied with more than 80 percent of requests in Japan, Singapore, and Australia. At the opposite extreme, Google refused to comply with any of Turkey and Hungary’s information requests, and it complied with fewer than half of the requests in South Korea, Portugal, Argentina, and Poland.

The section on takedown requests provides an interesting window into the different types of censorship that occur around the world. For example, Google complied with a request from the Thai government to block access to 43 items “mocking or criticizing the king,” which is illegal in that country. It removed an Italian video that depicted the assassination of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, but refused to remove videos criticizing politicians in India.

Reasons for US takedown requests

The relative market share of various Google products varies significantly between countries, which makes country-to-country comparisons difficult. For example, Brazil’s high figures are at least partly explained by the phenomenal popularity of Google’s Orkut social network in that country. Without similar statistics from Google’s competitors, such as Facebook in the United States, it’s hard to make an apples-to-apples comparison among countries.

A drop in the bucket

To help us put the report into perspective, Ars talked to Chris Soghoian, a researcher at the Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research at Indiana University who has written extensively about government surveillance in the United States. Soghoian praised Google for supporting transparency.

“No other company regularly releases stats like this,” he said. He urged Google’s competitors, such as Facebook, to follow suit.

But Soghoian also emphasized that the bulk of government surveillance likely isn’t done via Google or its competitors. Rather, law enforcement officials seeking access to private communications primarily go to telecommunications companies like AT&T and Verizon, each of which receive tens of thousands of requests annually. So even if Facebook, Microsoft, and other Internet companies followed Google’s lead, our understanding of government information requests would still be limited.

Soghoian has argued that Congress and the public will not be able to fully understand the scope of government surveillance unless government agencies themselves are required to collect and disclose statistics about the types and numbers of requests they submit to all private companies. Legislation to that effect circulated the halls of Congress last year, but was not formally introduced.

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