Google reports .govs requesting lots of user information

According to Google's latest Transparency Report, government requests for user information and requests to remove content have increased. Help Michael P. Kassner figure out what that means.

They say time flies as you get older, and I have to agree. It seems only yesterday I was writing about Google's Transparency Report for the second half of 2011. Yet, Google has now released its Transparency Report for the first half of 2012.

It's probably not going to shock anyone when I say the number of requests for user data by governments has increased each reporting period since Google started tracking. The Official Google Blog mentions:

"This is the sixth time we've released this data, and one trend has become clear: Government surveillance is on the rise. As you can see from the graph below, government demands for user data have increased steadily since we first launched the Transparency Report. In the first half of 2012, there were 20,938 inquiries from government entities around the world. Those requests were for information about 34,614 accounts."

Google was getting "on average" 115 requests for user information each day between January and June of 2012. Requests to remove content by governments have increased as well. The obvious spike in the graph below for the first half of 2012 resulted from 1,791 requests to remove 17,746 pieces of content.

What governments?

I was curious as to what government bodies were involved. The report includes an interesting graph that breaks down the number of requests for user data Google received, and what country the requests came from.

There was something I missed in the report until I read this Naked Security blog by Paul Roberts. China was not included in the above graph. Roberts surmises:

Google has had a contentious relationship with the ruling Communist Party there, which is known to rely on a vast network of digital surveillance to keep tabs on the speech and activities of its citizens.

The report also goes into great depth about received requests to remove content from Google services, and what countries the requests came from. For example, the following graph refers to requests from government bodies in the United States. (For the curious, China did make this list.)

Next, Google itemized the type of United States .gov requests:

  • We received five requests and one court order to remove seven YouTube videos for criticizing local and state government agencies, law enforcement, or public officials. We did not remove content in response to these requests.
  • We received a court order to remove 1,754 posts from Google Groups relating to a case of continuous defamation against a man and his family. We removed 1,664 of the posts, which fell within the scope of the order.
  • We received three court orders to remove 641 search results for linking to websites that allegedly defame organizations and individuals. We removed 233 of the search results requested, which fell within the scope of the orders.
  • In response to a court order, we removed 156 search results because the web pages in question used a trademark in violation of an earlier order.
  • The number of content removal requests we received increased by 46 percent compared to the previous reporting period.

Some perspective

All these numbers made my head spin. I needed perspective. For instance, the number of requests seemed high, but is it? Let's take a look. I was curious as to how many people accessed Google services. As you'd expect, a lot. Even going back to 2011 — get ready — over a billion people access Google services every month (courtesy of comScore Data Mine).

How does that compare with the number of requests? I'll let you decide. And, more importantly, what does it means in the grand scheme of things?

Beneficial fallout

One thing about being the biggest kid on the block is it's easier to persuade others to follow your lead. Case in point, several other well-known services are now publishing similar transparency reports:

"We're heartened that in the past year, more companies like Dropbox, LinkedIn,, and Twitter have begun to share their statistics. Our hope is over time, more data will bolster public debate about how we can best keep the Internet free and open."

Here is the transparency report from Dropbox:

When allowed under the law, Dropbox is committed to letting you know how many data requests we receive from law enforcement. Between April 1, 2011 and March 31, 2012, law enforcement agencies served Dropbox with fewer than 40 warrants, subpoenas, and orders seeking user information. We scrutinize all government data requests to make sure they comply with the law. We will update this report at least once per year.

Final thoughts

As I worked through this article, I became less sure of what conclusion to draw. The number of requests by government organizations has gone up, but doesn't that number pale in comparison to the number of users accessing Google services. What do you smart people think?


Information is my field...Writing is my passion...Coupling the two is my mission.

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