New Google Tool Exposes Government Pushing and Prying

Google may have been the primary target of a sharp attack by privacy commissioners from 10 nations on Tuesday, but later that same day, the company revealed a new tool that could effectively turn the tables on those and other governments.

Specifically, the company’s new Government Requests tool is designed to reveal for all to see when government agencies around the world ask Google to provide them with user data or remove certain content.

Beginning with data from July through December of 2009, the map-based tool reveals for each nation how many government requests of either kind were made during the time period represented. Currently, Brazil tops the list for both, with 291 requests to remove content and 3,663 requests for user data.

Increased Transparency

“We are releasing this tool because we believe that transparency will give people insight into these kinds of government actions,” Scott Rubin, head of planning, public policy and communications for Google EMEA, told TechNewsWorld.

“Historically, information like this has not been broadly available,” Rubin added. “We hope this tool will be helpful in discussions about the appropriate scope and authority of government requests and that other companies will make similar disclosures.”

Google plans to update the data in six-month increments.

China, interestingly, considers censorship demands state secrets, Google noted. For that reason, there’s just a question mark in the Government Requests tool for requests from that government.

‘We’d Like to Provide More Detail’

In the case of most government requests to remove content, however, Google’s new tool indicates what percentage of those requests it complied with. The tool also reveals where the content in question was — on Blogger or YouTube, for example — and whether a court order was involved.

“Many of these requests are entirely legitimate, such as requests for the removal of child pornography,” David Drummond, Google’s senior vice president for corporate development and chief legal officer, noted on the company blog.

For government requests for user data, however — many of which are made for legitimate criminal investigations, Drummond said — the tool does not yet indicate whether Google complied with or challenged those requests, though it plans to do so in the future. It also doesn’t show how many users were affected.

“We’d like to provide more detail, but it’s not easy,” Rubin explained. “The requests come from a variety of law enforcement agencies with different legal authorities and different forms of requests. They don’t follow a standard format or ask for the same kinds of information.”

Complex Data

For example, a request may cover many users or just one, Rubin pointed out. Alternatively, a request might cover different types of data but not be valid for all of them.

“Given the complexity, we haven’t figured out a way to categorize and quantify the requests in a way that adds meaningful transparency, but we plan to in the future,” Rubin said.

“Our goal is to provide users with as much information as possible, and we believe these numbers are a good first step in that direction,” he added. “We’re new at this, and we’re still learning the best way to collect and present this information.”

Seeking More Detail

Google should be commended for disclosing more information than most companies do, Wendy Seltzer, a senior researcher with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University and founder of the Chilling Effects website, told TechNewsWorld.

Additional information that would be helpful in future iterations of the tool include more detail about the nature of the requests, Seltzer added.

An example, she said, would be “what law was the government relying on in demanding a takedown?”

Still, for researchers trying to understand the Internet and censorship, “a lot of that happens through private parties,” Seltzer noted. “By showing us at least some information — and we hope for more in the future — Google is helping people to see what’s really shaping their Internet experience.”

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