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Google Still Granting 93% of User Data Requests to U.S. Gov’t

And yet that's actually better than most other companies.

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Google Still Granting 93% of User Data Requests to U.S. Gov’t
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Google released it’s semi-annual Transparency Report for July to December 2011 over the weekend and, as always, there are some revealing insights into how the company handles requests for both user data and content removal from different governments around the world.

For starters, there were four new first-timers for content removal requests: Bolivia, Czech Republic, Jordan, and Ukraine. As Google continues its sprawl across the world, it’s becoming more accessible to larger populations and, as things go, this is about the average number of first-time requests from countries in each report. Beyond Google just becoming more available in other parts of the world, the internet itself is constantly growing in size, so the amount of removal requests and user data requests should be expected to increase commensurately, but within expectations. As you can see in the table compiled for the Transparency Report, the amount of URL removal requests that Google receives has increased steadily over the past year and a half but with a particularly high spike since March 2012.

URL Removal Requests

While more requests are expected as the company continues to grow, Google Senior Policy Analyst Dorothy Chou said in a blog post that the growing amount of government requests to remove political content has become a “troubling” trend. “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,” she said.

Some of the countries Chou listed as examples, such as Spain and Poland, respectively submitted removal requests that linked to blogs and articles referencing public figures and links that were critical of a public institution. Google, she said, did not comply with either country’s requests.

Merely perusing the interactive map that Google created to more easily see summaries of different countries included in the report, it’s not hard to identify some of additional Western governments that Chou may have been referring to.

Google Transparency Report - UK

Google Transparency Report - US

Google Transparency Report - Germany

Google Transparency Report - Brazil

The report details some of the instances of removal requests from Western governments, some of which Google complied with and some it didn’t:

  • U.K.: We received a request from the UK’s Association of Police Officers to remove five user accounts that allegedly promoted terrorism. We terminated these accounts because they violated YouTube’s Community Guidelines, and as a result approximately 640 videos were removed.
  • U.S.: We received a request from a local law enforcement agency to remove 1,400 YouTube videos for alleged harassment. We did not comply with this request. Separately, we received a request from a different local law enforcement agency to remove five user accounts that allegedly contained threatening and/or harassing content. We terminated four of the accounts, which resulted in the removal of approximately 300 videos, but did not remove the remaining account with 54 videos.
  • Canada: We received a request from the Passport Canada office to remove a YouTube video of a Canadian citizen urinating on his passport and flushing it down the toilet. We did not comply with this request.
  • Hah. Really, Canada?

    The most startling figure in this report is the number of requests from the United States government for user data. 6,321 requests were submitted and, more troubling, Google complied with 93% of them. No other country was granted as much compliance and only one other country, Brazil, had a rate of compliance in the 90-100% range. While the percent with which Google has complied with requests from the U.S. government has remained consistent over the past three Transparency Reports, the number of requests filed by the government has increased significantly each time.

    Although Google continues to grant virtually every request for user data by the U.S. government, one stat that is more encouraging is the company’s compliance with content removal requests. This is one category in which Google appears to be holding its ground against undue attempts to limit the openness of the net. Over the past three years, which includes six different Transparency Reports, Google has gradually received more and more removal requests yet has complied with less of them. I could be wrong, but this would indicate that while the amount of requests has risen, Google’s maintained its same rubric for what content deserves to be removed and what content is permitted to stay. The increase of removal requests over just the last six months of 2011 is particularly stunning.

  • 1,421 requests to be removed July – Dec 2010, 87% compliance
  • 757 requests to be removed Jan – June 2011, 63% compliance
  • 6,192 requests to be removed July – Dec 2011, 42% compliance
  • From the first half of 2011 to the last half, Google received over an 800% increase in content removal requests from the U.S. government. Unreal. The bulk of these requests pertained to the nondescript “Other” with Google AdWords, “Privacy and Security” with YouTube content, and “Defamation” with Google Groups and Web Search.

    Google should be commended for even supplying the public with this Transparency Report, as its a practice that is not widely practiced among the upper echelon of tech companies. It’s also encouraging that Google appears to remain committed to fighting censorship on the web. However, Google doesn’t appear to be so resilient when it comes to user privacy as the company is almost guaranteed to comply with the government whenever the feds come knocking.

    The thing is, according to a recent report from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Google is actually one of the better companies when it comes to supporting users’ data privacy in the face of government requests. For example, Apple, Microsoft, Verizon, and AT&T were rated much worse than Google in terms of defending your data privacy to the government. So if Google’s complying with this government this much and you think that’s bad, just imagine how much other companies are betraying you to government interests.

    Google Still Granting 93% of User Data Requests to U.S. Gov’t
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