Google report: Government agency requests for content removal and user data rise globally and in U.S.

Amanda Simmons | Content Regulation | News | June 18, 2012

Requests from government agencies in the U.S. to remove Internet content and reveal more information about online users continues to rise, reflecting a similar trend around the world, according to Google's Transparency Report released Sunday.

The biannual report found that in the U.S. from July to December 2011, government agencies -- including local, state and federal government offices -- requested the removal of 6,192 items posted online and information from 12,243 Google user accounts.

In a post on Google’s official blog, the company's senior policy analyst Dorothy Chou said she found the number of government-ordered requests worldwide “troubling.” According to the report, the company has complied with fewer government requests since 2010.

“Transparency is a core value at Google,” the company’s report stated. “As a company we feel it is our responsibility to ensure that we maximize transparency around the flow of information related to our tools and services. We believe that more information means more choice, more freedom and ultimately more power for the individual.”

Google complied in part or in full with 42 percent of government requests in the U.S. for content removal in the second half of 2011, according to the report. Targeting information from Google products such as blog posts or YouTube videos, the requests came in the form of court, executive and police orders and cited national security, privacy and security, defamation and violence as reasons for removal.

The report noted that Google refused a request from a local law enforcement agency that wanted a blog removed because of a post that allegedly defamed one of its officials in a “personal capacity.”

Regarding user data, Google said it complied at least partially with 93 percent of the requests submitted by government agencies in the U.S. for account information.

From late 2010 to late 2011, government-issued requests for user information – which Google said generally relate to criminal investigations – have increased by almost 40 percent.

“We review each request to make sure that it complies with both the spirit and the letter of the law, and we may refuse to produce information or try to narrow the request in some cases,” Google stated in its report.

In late May, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a digital rights advocacy group, gave the company three out of four stars in its 2012 study rating online service providers’ privacy and transparency practices. The EFF said Google received high marks because of its two-year-old voluntary transparency report and its willingness to fight for user privacy in Congress and in court.

Sonic.net, a California-based telecommunications company and internet service provider, and Twitter received the EFF’s highest ratings. Twitter is currently in the process of fighting a subpoena issued by the New York County District Attorney’s Office for access to the user information -- such as the location where the tweets were sent -- of an activist who was arrested during Occupy Wall Street protests last fall. Unlike Twitter, Google does not have a formal policy promising to notify users when government agencies request personal user information.

“While some Internet companies have stepped up for users in particular situations, it's time for all companies that hold private user data to make public commitments to defend their users against government overreach,” according to the EFF's report.