Google Reports Censorship Surge

Governments around the world are telling Google to remove more information.
Google's seventh semi-annual Transparency Report arrives much like its previous one and the one before that, with word of growing government demands for user data and for the removal of content posted online.

The company began releasing figures about government data demands back in September 2010. Before that, it released data about service availability in China.

Other companies have since followed Google's lead. Last July, Twitter began publishing its own Transparency Report and cited Google as an example. In March, Microsoft for the first time began publishing data about law enforcement requests for data.

Google and other online companies must deal both with information removal requests from copyright holders and governments, and with account access requests arising from law enforcement efforts. Other companies that publish data about takedown and account access requests include: Dropbox, Sonic.Net, SpiderOak and LinkedIn.

However, not all companies are the same in terms of how they can access user data. In contrast to Google's vast knowledge of its users, cloud storage provider SpiderOak adheres to a zero-knowledge policy: Because user content is encrypted with a user-held key, SpiderOak cannot access the files it stores and thus cannot reveal user content in response to a court order.

[ Want to know more about SpiderOak and its competitors? Read 8 Great Cloud Storage Services. ]

Even as the rest of the tech industry catches up with Google in terms of transparency, Google continues to push the envelope. In March, it added information about National Security Letters (NSLs) to its Transparency Report. NSLs, authorized under the Patriot Act, remain controversial because they do not require court approval, and they forbid the target of the letter from revealing that he or she received it.

In March, a U.S. District Court judge ruled NSLs are unconstitutional, though that decision is currently under appeal. Google is presently fighting an NSL that it received.

Over the years, said Google legal director Susan Infantino in a blog post, governments have sought the removal of more and more content. "As we've gathered and released more data over time, it's become increasingly clear that the scope of government attempts to censor content on Google services has grown," she wrote. "In more places than ever, we've been asked by governments to remove political content that people post on our services."

Infantino said that Google has received court orders in several countries to take down blog posts that criticize government officials or their associates. The legitimacy of these court orders isn't always certain: In a list of answers to frequently asked questions, Google said it has received 10 fake court orders to remove information.

During the second half of 2012, Google said it received 2,285 government requests to take down 24,179 pieces of content. During the first half of 2012, the company received 1,811 removal requests related to 18,070 pieces of content.

The countries that made the most requests to remove content during the last six months of 2012 were: Brazil (697), United States (321), Germany (231), India (160) and Turkey (147).

Infantino said Google saw a sharp increase in information removal requests from Brazil, about half of which concern the country's election law to protect candidates from supposed defamation. She also observed that information removal requests have increased in Russia, due to an Internet protection law passed late last year that gives authorities the right to take down online content without trial, ostensibly to protect children.

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Brian T. Horowitz, Contributing Reporter
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Cynthia Harvey, Freelance Journalist, InformationWeek
Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing