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Google reports surge in government surveillance -- et tu, Web?

November 13, 2012|By Jessica Guynn
  • Pedestrians walk past the Google logo outside the building that houses the search giant in Beijing.
Pedestrians walk past the Google logo outside the building that houses… (Tomohiro Ohsumi / Bloomberg )

Requests from governments around the globe to remove content from Google search results and its other services spiked more than 70% in the first half of the year, the Internet search giant said.

Google said there were 1,791 requests to remove 17,746 pieces of content through June. That's according to the company's Transparency Report, which breaks down requests by country to illustrate the rising pressures Google faces over what type of content it can show to its more than 1 billion users.

The government of Turkey made 501 requests to remove content, up dramatically from 45 in the previous six months. U.S. authorities followed with 273 requests, up from 187.

Google releases the data twice a year. It's the sixth time that Google has issued a Transparency Report since its tense 2010 standoff with Chinese government officials over online censorship.

Google is a frequent target of such requests because it has become an indispensable part of many people's digital lives. In addition to its ubiquitous search engine, Google also runs the world's largest video-sharing site, YouTube. Its report casts a light on take-down requests that largely take place beyond the public purview.

In Turkey, for instance, the company received requests to remove content considered critical of the government and the republic's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Google said.

Google also said government surveillance of digital citizens is surging, with demands for user data increasing in the first half of 2012. There were 20,938 requests for user data, up 15% from the second half of 2011, it said. The U.S. had the most requests for user data requests -- nearly 8,000, up 26% from the prior period.

Google gets more requests from the U.S. because it has such a large number of users and U.S. authorities are more familiar with the protocol of making the requests than officials from some other countries.

"We think it's important to shine a light on how government actions could affect our users. When we first launched the Transparency Report in early 2010, there wasn't much data out there about how governments sometimes hamper the free flow of information on the Web,” Dorothy Chou, senior policy analyst at Google, said in a blog post.

The rise in take-down requests has alarmed people in the technology community. Entrepreneur John Battelle questioned why other companies don't produce similar reports so that the public can get a much broader glimpse of online suppression.

"Where is Amazon’s Transparency Report? Yahoo's? Microsoft's? And, of course, the biggest question in terms of scale and personal information –- where is Facebook's? Oh, and of course, where is Apple's?” he wrote in a blog post in June. "Put another way: If we are shifting our trust from the government to the corporation, who's watching the corporations?"

Google noted its report only details "an isolated sliver" of government take-down requests, because it is unaware of what requests are being made of other technology companies.

"We're heartened that in the past year, more companies like Dropbox, LinkedIn, and Twitter have begun to share their statistics too," Chou said. "Our hope is that over time, more data will bolster public debate about how we can best keep the Internet free and open."


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