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Feds’ Requests for Google Data Rise 20 %

September 23, 2010 by  


By Ryan Singel

The number of U.S. government requests for Google data rose 20% in the last six months, according to data released by the search giant Monday.

U.S. government agencies sent Google 4,287 requests for data on Google users and services from Jan. 1 to June 30, 2010, an average of 23.5 a day. That’s compared to 3,287 for July 1 to Dec. 31, 2009, the company reported Tuesday in an update to its unique transparency tool.

That rise is just a small part of the newest statistics on worldwide government data requests to Google, which are now paired with a comprehensive tool for viewing government blockages of Google services. The new tool lets you check timelines of traffic to 17 Google services from some 200 countries to see blockages and traffic patterns.

The new tool builds upon (and replaces) the up-time monitor that Google custom-built so the public could monitor censorship of its services in China in this spring’s showdown over censorship. However, that tool inadvertantly reported a China-wide blockage in July when none existed, leading to press reports that had to be quickly retracted.

Perhaps as a way to prevent spurring false-alarm news stories, the new tool will have a “tape-delay” of about 30 hours to allow Google engineers to verify and annotate outages. So for instance, if the company suspects a cable outage, not censorship (or vice versa), they can note it and prevent crying “wolf”.

As for why the company would develop such a comprehensive tool?

“Transparency can be a deterrent to censorship,” Google spokeswoman Niki Fenwick told Wired.com. “Free expression is core to Google’s business, and it is a core value.”

For instance, with the tool you can see the effects of Pakistan’s 10-day block of YouTube in response to a “Draw Muhammed” campaign started on Facebook that infuriated the Islamic government. Likewise, you can see the effect of China’s blockage of YouTube in March 2009.

The tool does not record blocking of specific URLs or search terms, as is sometimes used in some governments’ censorship campaigns. Instead the reporting service monitors for widespread outages, though partial blocks and service degradation can be seen in the data visualizations.

As for government data requests, Google added slightly more detail to its reporting on takedown requests, which now indicate how many URLs the government asked to be taken down in total, in addition to the number of requests (because a request could entail multiple URLs).

In the first half of 2010, U.S. government agencies requested removals 128 times, covering 678 items. Google complied with those requests, in full or part, about 83 percent of the time. For instance (as visible in the graphic above), two courts ordered Google to remove location information from its mapping services, 45 items were requested to be removed from Blogger, and a court ordered Google to remove material from search results 30 times.

Brazil remains in first place for data requests, though those numbers might be a bit unfair, because Brazilians remain heavy users of Google’s social networking service Orkut.

Google debuted the government transparency tool in April, and remains the only large tech company in the United States to reveal this kind of data.

Yahoo, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, AOL, Comcast, AT&T, Verizon and Time Warner, among others, do not publish this data, nor do they make it available when the media asks for it, even though there’s no law requiring them to keep such requests quiet.

Google cannot reveal some government data requests, however, and they are not included in this tally. According to Google, the numbers do not include National Security Letters, a sort-of self-issued subpoena used by the FBI in drug and terrorism cases. At their post–Patriot Act peak, the FBI issued more than 50,000 such letters a year, nearly all with gag orders attached to them. The use of such letters dipped for a time after the Justice Department’s internal watchdog unveiled widespread abuses and sloppy procedures, but are on the rise again.

Also not included are national security wiretap and data requests, known as FISA warrants, that are approved by a secret court in D.C. to combat spies and threats to national security.

Nor is there any information on how much data, if any, the government forces Google to turn over en masse on individuals outside the United States, using broad powers handed to the government in 2008 by Congress. That legislation, initially opposed but later supported by Sen. Barack Obama, lets the government turn online service providers into intelligence collection arms of the U.S. government, so long as the “targets” aren’t known to be U.S. citizens.

When he was a candidate, President Obama pledged to revisit that law — passed as a way to legalize much of the Bush administration’s secret, warrantless wiretapping program, but the law remains in place.

Also not included are civil lawsuit requests (such as those filed in a business dispute or divorce) or copyright takedown requests, although these are types of requests generally filed by private parties, because in the United States, copyright does not apply to government-produced documents.

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