Google and governments: The delicate relationship

A new Google transparency report shows that the US leads the world in government requests for information on citizens' online activity. Google's responses -- and the legislation underlying these requests -- have a huge impact on digital safety and privacy.

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    Google released a special transparency report this week, showing that the US government sent the search giant 5,950 requests for data about Google users and services between January 1 and June 30, 2011.
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Google released a special transparency report this week, showing that the US government sent the search giant 5,950 requests for data about Google users and services between January 1 and June 30, 2011. That’s a 29 percent increase over the previous six months.

The requests, which were made in connection with criminal investigations, covered a total of 11,057 unique accounts. Google says it complied wholly or partially with 93 percent of the requests.

Google is the only company that publicly releases this sort of specific information about its relationship with governments (the report covers other countries as well, not just the US). It’s part of the company’s strategy to spotlight the issue of government access to citizens’ online information. Google is part of the “Due Process Coalition,” along with AOL, AT&T, Microsoft, and Facebook. The group pushes for reform to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, a 1986 law that allows government investigators to review users’ online information (including e-mail and other stored data) without a warrant.

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The report also catalogues requests for Google to take down certain information. In the US, Google says, it received 92 requests for data removal, covering 757 pieces of content, including YouTube videos and content posted in Google Groups. The company says it complied (at least partially) with 63 percent of these requests, but left information alone in cases where it didn’t appear to violate Google’s Terms of Service or local laws.

Google mentioned two specific requests, which asked for the removal of videos that allegedly defamed police officers and showed police brutality. Google says it did not comply with either request.

The report also covers requests received from other governments, although the US has more data requests than any other country. It’s not hard to see this data would be useful to law enforcement. Google doesn’t break down the requests by type, but they’re ostensibly related to investigations into criminal or terrorist activity. It’s worth pointing out, too, that some of the government requests are classified, such as warrants under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and certain requests covered under the Patriot Act.

The transparency report also tracks the times when Google’s services were blacked out in various locations, a tool that Google says “visualizes disruptions in the free flow of information, whether it’s a government blocking information or a cable being cut.” The effects of the Arab Spring movement can be clearly seen in this section, which documents service blackout in Egypt (January 27 through February 1), Libya (starting February 18), and Syria (starting June 2).

Google may be the only company that voluntarily releases this kind of granular information, but reports like this are a valuable index of the ever-shifting relationship between online content providers and governments in the 21st century. Readers, what’s your take? Do you think stronger legislation is needed to protect citizens’ online data, or do national security concerns take precedence? Let us know in the comments.

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