google privacy

The “Innocence of Muslims” YouTube clip, blog posts accusing a Brazilian state prosecutor of corruption, a YouTube video that depicts state symbols in Germany “in a disparaging way”, search results that violate Israeli Penal Law by linking to criticism of judges.  All these things have prompted removal requests submitted to Google by governments around the world for the company to take down the offending content[1].

Governments submit content removal requests such as these, asking for any service of Google’s such as Blogger blog posts, YouTube videos, or Web Search results to be taken off the internet or blocked from users within that country. The requests come from the government departments themselves, or the police, or from court orders issued within the country.  Governments can also request user data information, potentially gathering information about its citizens’ or others’ internet use.  Google started recording these requests in its Transparency Report in 2010 to “maximise transparency around the flow of information related to … (its)… tools and services”[2].

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Iran and China have ongoing disruptions to Google’s services, where some or all of the services are blocked.  Governments in Pakistan, Morocco, Turkey and Takijstan have also disrupted some or all of Google’s services.[3]

The UK does not appear on this list of the worst offenders, but Google did receive 108 content removal requests from the government in the second half of 2012.  This figure was an increase from just 38 during the same period in 2010[4], over double the original number of requests.

What was so dangerous or offensive that it had to be removed?

24 Google Images were asked to be taken down because of “Privacy and Security” as well as 17 YouTube videos in the period July-December 2012.  58 YouTube videos had removal requests issued by the government for “National Security” reasons, and 40 items were also requested to be removed for “Defamation”.[5]  One can only wonder at the content of all this content, but unfortunately Google does not record the removed items individually.  We can only guess at what might be a threat to national security on YouTube.

The UK’s top reason for removal requests has been “Privacy and Security” since 2010, accounting for 26% of all requests.[6]  This is a reason common to other countries’ governments too, accounting for 51% of all requests from the United States government[7] as well as 12% of those issued from France[8].  It is not specified whose privacy and security this refers to, whether that of individuals, or of the government.  The top reason for requests from both the US and the French governments is “Defamation”, at 51% and 53% respectively.[9]  “Defamation”, “Violence” and “National Security” are the UK’s 2nd, 3rd and 4th reasons for removal requests of Google’s content, whereas in the US “Privacy and Security”, “Trademark” and “Copyright” come next[10], and in France “Privacy and Security”, “Adult Content” and “Hate Speech” make up the other top 4 offending reasons[11].

Who is asking Google to remove these items?

Over 50% of the requests that are issued by the UK government come from the executive or the police[12], whereas in the United States the requests are predominantly issued through court orders[13].  The US dwarfs both other countries however in the number of requests it issues per year, which rose to over 300 in 2012[14].

Just as worrying perhaps, if not more so, for American citizens, is the fact that the US also issues requests for user data information about an astonishing amount of people.  This figure has increased over the years, and at the end of 2012 the US government was recorded as having submitted 8,438 requests for user data information from Google![15]  This information was requested for 14,791 users or accounts using Google’s services.[16]

However the UK government issued 1,458 requests to Google for user data information during the same period regarding 1,918 users or accounts.[17]

Could that have been you or me?  There is no way of telling on the Transparency Report unfortunately.  The reasons for these submissions are not recorded by Google, unlike the content removal requests for items on its services like pictures or videos, and therefore it is not clear why the requests for information about individuals’ usage were sent.  It is interesting to note that as well as the US government issuing far more requests, Google also complies with those requests more often than for France or the UK.  From 2010 up to mid-2012, Google provided the requested information in over 90% of cases, and this dropped to 88% of the time in the second half of the year.[18]  Google provided 70% of the requested information to the UK government in that period, where previously it had only done so around 64% of the time.[19]

Large multinational corporations such as Google are often lambasted for conspiring with governments and invading individuals’ digital privacy.  It is interesting that Google decided to launch its Transparency Report in order to provide the world’s citizens with clear information about their governments’ control of information relating to its services.  It is equally interesting to note what is omitted from the report.  Although it has only been running for a few years, some of the data is quite vague, and it is not possible to know exactly what governments have requested and exactly why they have done so.  Google should be commended for releasing this information and for continuing to grow its recording capacity, but we should be careful not to read too much into its statistics when we do not have full, transparent details yet about government “censorship” or control of the internet.

BY: Amanda Green