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Google Says Governments Fight Transparency

Google's latest Transparency Report sees a rise in efforts by governments to erase criticism.
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In its eighth biannual Transparency Report, Google once again observes a rise in government requests to remove content that's critical of government behavior, even though the company is fighting government opposition to transparency and pushing for limits to secret government data gathering.

Susan Infantino, legal director at Google, wrote in a blog post that government requests to remove political content have been a consistent concern for the company. Judges, police departments, and town councils have sought to deny access to criticism and to information about their actions and decision-making processes. "These officials often cite defamation, privacy, and even copyright laws in attempts to remove political speech from our services."

[Tech industry executives are unhappy about the way the government collects data on citizens. Read Reform NSA, Tech Execs Tell Obama.]

During the first six months of 2013, "we received 3,846 government requests to remove 24,737 pieces of content -- a 68 percent increase over the second half of 2012," Infantino wrote. The majority of requests represented presumably legitimate efforts to enforce applicable laws, but 93 sought the removal of government criticism. Google removed content in response to less than one-third of these requests. For example, it declined a US law enforcement official's request to remove a search result listing of a link to a news article about the officer's record.

The company also received 27 requests from an unnamed federal agency to remove 89 Android apps from the Google Play Store. The request said the apps infringed on the agency's trademark rights. Google reviewed the apps and removed 76 of them.

Governmental content removal requests grew tenfold in Turkey and more than doubled in Russia, Infantino said.

Google continues its litigation to get the US government to allow it to disclose the aggregate number of demands for information it receives based on national security concerns. In a related effort, Google, Apple, AOL, Facebook, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter, and Yahoo asked the US government this month in an open letter to restrain its secret data gathering through the National Security Agency. Unfettered data gathering by the NSA has been characterized as a threat to the future of cloud computing.

Pushback against governmental resistance to goverance goes beyond the tech industry. On Wednesday, the panel of US government advisers reviewing intelligence gathering practices at President Obama's behest published a report recommending the imposition of oversight and limits on the NSA. On Tuesday, in another case related to transparency, Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle of the US District Court for the District of Columbia ordered the Obama administration to reveal an unclassified presidential directive in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. In her ruling, she rejected the government's attempt "to engage in what is in effect governance by 'secret law.'"

Thomas Claburn is editor-at-large for InformationWeek. He has been writing about business and technology since 1996 for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. He is the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and his mobile game Blocfall Free is available for iOS, Android, and Kindle Fire.

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