Google has issued new findings on government requests for information, and once again, the results are not cheerful. The search giant says that requests to remove content have “spiked” and that “one trend has become clear: Government surveillance is on the rise.”
The news comes by way of a company blog post announcing Google’s sixth “Transparency Report,” an ongoing look at how governments around the world ask for information about its subscribers or ask Google to remove content. And, once again, the report provides colorful details about requests from different countries — including, this time, fake court orders submitted in the US and Canada.
Turning to the requests themselves, Google reports that in the first half of 2012, governments made 20,938 requests for information about 34,614 accounts — which include Google products like Gmail, YouTube and Blogger. This is approximately a 15 percent increase from the last six months of 2011. In the longer term, here’s what the trend looks like:
The countries with the greatest increase in government requests for information included South Korea (257 to 423: 65%), Poland (241 to 351: 46%) and the United States (6,321 to 7,969: 26%). Turkey and Western European countries saw large increases in government requests to remove content. In these cases, the requests related to images of criminal content but also included government officials abusing privacy or defamation to remove embarrassing blogs or videos.
Governments’ growing interest in Google users can be explained in part by the fact that more people are online, but the numbers suggest the pace of surveillance is growing faster than the rate of connectivity. Also take note that, while many of these requests relate to legitimate court orders or police investigations, others are illegitimate and Google does not comply with all the requests. In the last report, for instance, the company refused to give the government of Canada the identity of a YouTube subscriber who peed on his passport and flushed it down the toilet.
This time, Google said it refused to honor some requests on the ground they were based on faked court orders. One of these came from a US woman invoking copyright to target blog posts and three were supposed defamation court cases from India.
Overall, the report tells a familiar and somewhat depressing tale of governments’ efforts to burrow deeper into our online lives. But there is also positive news in the fact that more companies are following Google’s lead and shining a spotlight on these activities. As Google notes, companies like Dropbox, LinkedIn, Sonic.net and Twitter have begun to share their statistics too.
These acts of transparency among tech companies will ideally create a virtuous cycle where other companies feel obliged to begin providing censorship data too (Facebook? Hello, Facebook, are you out there?).
Another positive development in the new report is bar graphs that make it easier to see takedowns over time: