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“At a time when increasing numbers of governments are trying to regulate the free flow of information on the Internet, we hope this tool will shine some light on the scale and scope of government requests to censor information or obtain user data around the globe – and we welcome external debates about these issues that we grapple with internally on a daily basis.” – From Google’s “Government Request” Web site.
Google Inc. (Nasdaq: GOOG) has set up a new tool to show where it’s facing the most government pressure to censor material and turn over personal information about its users.
The country-by-country breakdown released Tuesday on Google’s Web site, called Government Request, marks the first time that the Internet search leader has provided such a detailed look at the censorship and data requests that it gets from regulators, courts and other government agencies. The figures, for the roughly 100 countries in which it operates, cover the final half of last year and will be updated every six months.
“Decisions about what content to remove or which user data requests to comply with can be complicated and difficult,” Google explained on the new Web site. “We try to make as much information as possible available to our users and, at the same time, work hard to protect their privacy. For example, when we remove web pages from our search results in accordance with specific country laws, we remove them only from the search results for that country’s domain and not globally. When we receive a request for user information, we review it carefully and provide only information properly within the scope and authority of the request.
“We believe that greater transparency will give citizens insight into these kinds of actions taken by their governments,” Google added. “We also hope this tool will be a valuable part of discussions about the appropriate scope and authority of government requests and that other companies will make similar disclosures.”
Google posted the numbers nearly a month after it began redirecting search requests to its China-based service. Those requests are now handled in Hong Kong rather than mainland China so Google wouldn’t have to obey the country’s Internet censorship laws. Google said details about the censorship demands it got while in mainland China still aren’t being shared because the information is classified as a state secret.
“We’re new at this, and we’re still learning the best way to collect and present this information,” Google said on the site. “We’ll continue to improve this tool and fine-tune the types of data we display.”
In other countries, Google is making more extensive disclosures about censorship demands or other government requests to edit its search results. Google is also including demands to remove material from its other services, including the YouTube video site, although it is excluding removal requests related to allegations of copyright infringement, a recurring problem for YouTube.
Google is showing how often it honored those requests and spelling out which of its services were targeted.
In the United States, for instance, it received 123 requests to remove material from its services during the last half of 2009 and complied with 80 percent of them. Reasons include violations of Google’s own policies regarding extreme violence, profanity and hate speech. More than 40 of those requests included a court order, Google said.
Google is providing a more limited snapshot of government requests for its users’ personal information. The numbers are confined primarily to demands made as part of criminal cases, leaving out civil matters such as divorces. And Google isn’t revealing how often it cooperated with those data demands.
The disclosure comes as more regulators and consumers watchdogs around the world are complaining that the company doesn’t take people’s privacy seriously enough. Google maintains that its users’ privacy is one of the company’s highest priorities. The company also notes that, in one instance, it has gone to court to prevent the U.S. Justice Department from getting broad lists of people’s search requests.
Brazil’s government peppered Google with the most requests during the six-month period covered. The company says that’s largely because it operates a social network called Orkut. That service has attracted millions of users in Brazil and generates more taunting, derogatory language and other inflammatory material likely to trigger government requests and violate its own standards.
Google received 3,663 requests for user data and 291 requests to remove material from Brazil. Nearly 200 of the removal requests involved Orkut.
Other countries logging at least 1,000 requests for user data were the United States (3,580), United Kingdom (1,166) and India (1,061).
After Brazil, the most requests to edit material came from Germany, at 188. The country has laws that restrict the online display of content connected to the Nazi regime. India was next with 142 requests mostly tied to Orkut, followed by the United States, where the demands focused on YouTube.