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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Google Reveals Some Government Requests Data

Google is starting to do a very good job at making their government involvements, like legal requests to have information removed, more transparent. A new site titled “Government requests” shows a world map along with information for many countries in regards to how many government requests were received. Clicking on a particular number breaks this down into request types, such as “94 Web Search (court order)” or “70 YouTube”. Limitations to this data apply, as Google explains.

Knowledge of the situation is the basis for analysis and coming to a conclusion as to whether something is right. Making such numbers sort of “neutrally” transparent allows citizens to further question their government if they feel the number of requests is overburdening. Google even goes as far as ordering the countries by top requests. Brazil leads the chart with 291 requests. Germany shows at number two with 188 requests. (I’d like to see an option to sort the request number relative to the population, though based on this data we could calculate that ourselves.) Worth keeping in mind that a single request may be far-reaching or rather small in scale, so the mere number of requests does not equal overall “control scope.”

When I say Google makes this data “neutrally” transparent then that’s perhaps just on the surface. Governments more often than not prefer to keep control instances in the dark, because exposed in daylight they lose some of their power. (Imagine a government’s lists of censored URLs being revealed – such censorship measures would now backfire because censored URLs might gain more prominence. Not a mere hypothetical example, either.) Implicitly I would say Google is showing they’re on the side of the countries’ citizens, i.e. the Google users. Those favoring the governments on the other hand might find some of Google’s recent moves to be less humble, less those of an underdog.

Between the lines, and this time even nearly on the record, you might also read a “help us with this issue” stance. Google says, “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.”

On the other hand, we need to keep in mind that there is still a long way to go before Google really makes their government involvements all transparent. For many requests in the past on that subject, I received a “no comment” answer from Google. Also, not all countries get a number plate on Google’s new map. China appears with a prominent red box with question mark on the world map, the web-infamous irony here being that the more you try to hide something the more visible it becomes. (China is also singular in Googleworld because it’s the only country receiving a special page listing which Google services are inaccessible from that location.)

Another point of interest is that Google sometimes looks as though they’re doing more than strictly requested. Take their explanations of the German censorship, for instance:

Germany’s numbers are also high relative to other countries. A substantial number of the German removals resulted from court orders that relate to defamation in search results. In addition, we receive lists of URLs from BPjM (BPjM-Modul), a federal government youth protection agency in Germany, for sites that contain content that violates German youth protection law, like content touting Nazi memorabilia, extreme violence or pornography, and we may remove those search results from Approximately 11% of the German removal requests related to pro-Nazi content or content advocating denial of the Holocaust, both of which are illegal under German law.

The BPjM is, by its name – often not by its implementations and actions – specifically aimed at youth protection; the “j” in BPjM stands for “jugendgefährdend”, which translates to “harmful to young persons.” This would imply that when I turn off the SafeSearch option in, I would get all those results in full. (Google introduces SafeSearch like this: “Many users prefer not to have adult sites included in search results (especially if kids use the same computer).”) That, however, is not the case.

Google has previous transparency efforts in this direction. For one thing, some countries link to a page showing more details when web results are amiss (the link goes to a site called Chilling Effects). And even when the fact of removal is not linked to more details – in China it’s not linked – the mere existence of a notice is already more than what much of the tech competition in search is willing to offer to users. In a way, this can all be seen as tying into Google’s general “open” strategy: requests transparency, stopping China blocking, the Google data liberation efforts, Google’s many open source projects, Google’s user data privacy dashboard. I could imagine that even within Google, motivations for these acts differ. Some may argue that for net age long term success you can grow big but never big and scary, while others may have reasoning grown out of Google’s “we should do better and be different” DNA. Also, that “free flow of information on the Internet” which Google mentions on their new site is good for users, but at the same time partially the basis of Google’s revenue. But if it’s the case that commercial and ethical interests happen to be aligned, should we even complain?

[Thanks George R.!]


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