Google’s Gov’t Surveillance Report Stirs Privacy, Free Speech Fears

Surveillance of Internet users by governments around the world is on the rise, Google concludes in its latest Transparency Report, which details government requests it receives for information about its users. The United States tops the list of countries making requests for user data.

“This is the sixth time we’ve released this data, and one trend has become clear: Government surveillance is on the rise,” Google said.

Requests by governments for user data for the first six months of 2012 increased 32.9 percent over the same period in 2011, to 20,938 from 15,744, Google reported. The United States made 7,969 user data requests, and Google complied with 90 percent of them.

Some of the U.S. requests were made on behalf of other governments pursuant to agreements or treaties, Google noted. The exact number, however, was not given.

Since Google began releasing its Transparency Report in 2009, government requests for information have increased 66.9 percent, the report shows.

Takedown Requests Rising

During previous reporting periods, government requests to take information off the Internet hovered around 1,000, but that changed in the first half of 2012, according to Google. Some 1,791 government requests to remove 17,746 pieces of content were made to the search giant during the period, an 88.7 percent increase over the first half of 2011.

Google declined to provide further details.

The increase in requests for data about users and for the takedown user information should concern advocates of online privacy and freedom, according to Gregory T. Nojeim, director of the Center for Democracy & Technology’s Project on Freedom, Security and Technology.

“It’s alarming the extent to which governments are demanding user information from Google and from other providers,” he told TechNewsWorld.

The increase in takedown requests is also alarming, he added. “It shows an increased impact on free-speech rights around the world,” he maintained.

Antiquated Law

Nojeim praised Google for its dedication to transparency. “Google, to its credit, is letting the public know information that would otherwise be hidden from it,” he observed. “I think these numbers will spur efforts to look again at the standards law enforcement entities must meet before demanding that user information is turned over to them.”

The U.S. law governing data collected by Google and others — the Electronic Communications Privacy Act — is badly out of date, according to Chris Conley, a technology and civil liberties fellow with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California.

“The law was passed in 1986 and hasn’t been updated since then,” he explained, “so we have an outdated patchwork systems of law protecting information such as that held by Google.”

Price of Popularity

Contributing to the increase in requests for user information from Google has been the company’s increasing popularity, asserted Ryan Budish, a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society.

“As Gmail and other Google properties become more popular, Google becomes just one of the easiest places to go to get information if you’re investigating a crime,” he told TechNewsWorld.

Google would be a less popular information watering hole for governments if it collected less data about its users, contends Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

“Google is keeping too much personal information,” he told TechNewsWorld. “They’ve placed their users at risk by keeping as much personal information as they do. They could help users out by not keeping so much user-identified data.”

Hobson’s Choice

As people use Google and other services for more and more of their lives every day, they shouldn’t be forced to leave their civil rights behind, maintained Conley.

“The Internet isn’t a place where you read a single Web page anymore,” he observed. “It’s a place where people communicate with each other using Google+ or send email or watch videos or read books.”

“People live a great deal of their lives using new technology,” he said, “and it’s important to assure that as technology advances, people shouldn’t have to choose between using this technology and keeping control of their personal information.”

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