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Google transparency report curiously opaque, thanks to FBI gag order

Google wants to be seen as a crusader for Internet transparency, and its new report details who is asking for users' information. But the report is incomplete, Google acknowledges.

By Staff writer / November 14, 2013

This photo shows a Google data center in Hamina, Finland. Google released its semiannual transparency report Thursday – its first since the Edward Snowden leaks.

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Tech giant Google portrays itself as an earnest crusader for transparency straining against an overbearing government in its new Transparency Report released Thursday – its first since Edward Snowden revealed the company's connection to a clandestine National Security Agency surveillance program.

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Staff writer

Fabien Tepper writes for the Monitor's science desk and weekly magazine.  She holds a master's degree in Animals and Public Policy from Tufts University, and a bachelor's degree in art from Swarthmore College.

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The semiannual report, which documents who is asking Google for information on its users, reveals a steady surge in government requests for Google users' data. The company received 12,539 requests in the last six months of 2009; in the first half of 2013, that number had more than doubled to 25,879.

The US accounted for 10,918 of those requests, but the report makes clear that the numbers are incomplete, due to government gag orders. Beside three charts showing the demographics, growth, and format of these requests is a chart labeled "Foreign Intelligent Surveillance Act requests," which is inked out.

"We want to go even further. We believe it’s your right to know what kinds of requests and how many each government is making of us and other companies. However, the U.S. Department of Justice contends that U.S. law does not allow us to share information about some national security requests that we might receive…. Our promise to you is to continue to make this report robust, to defend your information from overly broad government requests, and to push for greater transparency around the world," states the report.

Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Yahoo are all suing for the right to share more detailed information about the FISA requests they receive from the NSA and the FBI, according to the Associated Press. The Obama administration opposes the lawsuits, arguing that any disclosures would compromise antiterrorism programs. Currently, the companies are barred from disclosing even the number of FISA requests they receive.

"Google has not been allowed to give truthful and complete information about how often our government comes seeking user data, and that is rightfully offensive to Google and to its consumers," says Nate Cardozo, an attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) who specializes in privacy and free speech. "The Obama administration claims that it wants transparency, and I think these actions belie that claim."

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