US: Google has hit out at state attempts to clamp down on the internet by revealing governments’ requests to remove data from the web and get information about users. The company has released a web page with a map showing country by country where it has had government requests or court orders to remove content from the YouTube video service or its search results, or to provide details about users of its services.
The release comes amidst complaints from data protection authorities in 10 countries, including the UK, that Google’s Street View product, which provides pictures of public streets, and its ad-hoc social networking service, Buzz “were launched without due consideration of privacy and data protection laws” and that Buzz in particular “betrayed a disappointing disregard for fundamental privacy norms”.
Launching the new tool, Google said, “We believe that greater transparency will lead to less censorship” and links to a list which already shows that Brazil (where Google’s social network Orkut is hugely popular) leads the world with 291 removal requests – with Germany, India, the US, South Korea and the UK behind it. The “censorship” numbers also include non-governmental court-ordered removal of sites or results for defamation or criminal proceedings.
Interestingly, China has no listed requests because, as the online tool explains, “Chinese officials consider censorship demands as state secrets, so we cannot disclose that information at this time.”
Google portrayed the data release as part of its continuing championing of openness of information, which fits into its mission “to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible”. It also fits into its ongoing struggle with the Chinese government, whose censorship of search results – and suspected encouragement of hackers to break into Google’s most important systems – finally proved unbearable for top Google executives including co-founder Sergey Brin.
Response from rivals
Some of the biggest Internet firms said they did not immediately plan to follow Google’s action. Yahoo said that law enforcement demands affect a tiny fraction of its user base and that it does not generally discuss such information. Microsoft said it is working towards a framework through a coalition with other companies and public interest groups said that the move would provide more transparency on government demands for customer information. Facebook is still examining Google’s online tool for government data requests.