How Google became a champion for government transparency

Google has released its latest transparency report, continuing what the search giant views as a crusade for government accountability and privacy.

Jeff Chiu/AP/File
In this Nov. 12, 2015, file photo, a man walks past a building on the Google campus in Mountain View, Calif. Google has released a transparency report, continuing to lead what the search giant views as a crusade for government accountability and privacy.

Google published the latest updates to its "transparency report" on Monday with information about how regularly governments request data from its vast online collection.

Google's decision to release as much data as it can about these requests has triggered similar reports from other internet giants (such as Apple, Reddit, Amazon, and Facebook), shoring up the notion that these internet gatekeepers have the right to fight toe-to-toe with governments to protect user info in their digital vaults.  

"Google is proud to have led the charge on publishing these reports, helping shed light on government surveillance laws and practices across the world," Richard Salgado, Google's legal director for law enforcement and information security, wrote in a blog post Monday. 

Google's report showed a record number of inquiries, with the US government alone making 12,523 data requests on 27,157 users. It is the largest number of such requests since Google began publishing this information in 2009.

Since Google's earliest efforts, the tech company has come to see itself as a pioneer for transparency promotion, petitioning the government for permission to include more information within these reports, specifically after the Edward Snowden leaks in 2013. 

The company then sent an open letter to the US Attorney General and the FBI, asking the government for permission to publicize the number and scope of national security requests in an effort to protect its own claims of transparency. 

"Assertions in the press that our compliance with these requests gives the U.S. government unfettered access to our users' data are simply untrue," wrote Google's chief legal officer, David Drummond. "However, government nondisclosure obligations regarding the number of FISA national security requests that Google receives, as well as the number of accounts covered by those requests, fuel that speculation."

In that case as well, Google cited its potential as a trendsetter, writing that more companies were receiving approval to publish "general numbers for national security letters" because of "Google's initiative." 

The company also gave itself a pat on the back for the controversial Privacy Shield – an agreement designed to protect data as it is shared across the Atlantic – and the Judicial Redress Act, which extended privacy rights for non-US citizens. 

Other tech companies, including Apple, have released regular transparency reports for years.  And Apple, too, has used its corporate power to press the government for user rights, notably in its battle with the FBI over the iPhone of San Bernardino attacker Syed Farook. 

Following the examples of tech giants, the open-source archive Wikipedia released its first transparency report in 2014, when the encyclopedia's nonprofit parent published the number of "takedown" and user data requests it had received since 2012. Although it receives nowhere near Google's volume for such requests, Wikimedia Foundation also cited its "core values of freedom of speech and access to information," which are threatened, authors wrote in the report, when laws violate user privacy.

The very concept of Wikipedia rests on free access to information, but the nonprofit guards the personal details of users. In its first report, Wikimedia Foundation revealed it complied with no takedown requests and only seven of 56 queries for user info, PC Magazine reported.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has also applauded the advent of such reports, particularly if punctual and detailed information is provided.

"When it comes to protecting users, one of the strongest policies a company can adopt is to always inform users about a government request for their data," Rainey Reitman wrote for the foundation, applauding Reddit's first report.  

Twitter began releasing transparency reports in 2012, Facebook in 2013. Reddit released its first report in 2015, as did Pinterest, although neither appeared to be a hotbed of government inquiry. Amazon filed its first transparency report that same year, by which time it had become an all-but-expected practice among major technologies with a Fortune 500 ranking, PC magazine reported. 

"Where we need to act publicly to protect customers, we do," wrote Stephen Schmidt, Amazon's chief information security officer. "Amazon never participated in the NSA’s PRISM program. We have repeatedly challenged government subpoenas for customer information that we believed were overbroad, winning decisions that have helped to set the legal standards for protecting customer speech and privacy interests."

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