Google hits back in privacy row

Google has hit out at state attempts to clamp down on the internet by revealing governments' own requests to get information about users.

It released a web page on Tuesday with a map showing country by country where it has had government requests or court orders to provide details about users of its services or to remove content from the YouTube video service or its search results.

The release of the tool, announced on its official blog, comes as it has had to counter complaints from data protection authorities in 10 countries that its 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”.

Details provided by Google cover requests between July 1 and December 31 2009, and show, for example, that in the U.K. there were 1,166 requests for data about users and 59 requests to remove web pages in Google's services such as YouTube, or from its search results for the web. It complied with 45, or 76 per cent, of the 59 requests, of which 43 were about YouTube videos. It does not specify which government agency — such as the police or others — made the request.

Launching the new tool, Google says that “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 U.S., South Korea and the U.K. behind it. The “censorship” numbers also include non-governmental court-ordered removal of sites or results for defamation or criminal proceedings — though the company will try to clarify that in future updates to the data, probably every six months.

However, 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.” If China were included it would almost certainly be in the top spot, because its government only allowed Google to operate inside the country if it hid thousands of web pages from search results.

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”.

David Drummond, the company's chief legal officer, said in a blogpost about the new tool that while it regularly received demands to remove content such as child pornography (which it has a policy of removing at once), it also receives demands to take down other content to aid police or other enquiries. “The vast majority of these requests are valid and the information needed is for legitimate criminal investigations,” noted Mr. Drummond. “However, data about these activities historically has not been broadly available. We believe that greater transparency will lead to less censorship.” A Google spokesman insisted that the timing of the release was coincidental with the privacy complaint in a joint letter from data protection authorities from the U.K., Canada, Israel, France, Spain, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, Germany and the Netherlands. “We've been working on this for months and months,” he said.

But the criticism over Google's data practices, and Street View and Buzz in particular, led data protection authorities to call on Google to collect “only the minimum amount of personal information needed” for a service and to make it clear how that information will be used, as well as offering “privacy-protective default settings”, ensure personal data is adequately protected, and make it easy for people to delete accounts.

Google is coming under increasing pressure from governments to reduce the amount of data that it keeps about its users, and to reduce the length of time that it stores it.

The data provided do not include requests from normal non-governmental users such as individuals or companies for the removal of content such as pictures, blogposts or YouTube videos. Those would probably be many orders of magnitude greater: there are thousands of “user flags” of inappropriate or misused content on YouTube videos alone every month. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010

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Printable version | Sep 30, 2020 10:41:25 PM |

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