Google puts censorship on the map

The Internet giant steps up pressure on the U.S. and other countries that ask to have content removed from its sites

China might be one of the more egregious examples of a government that tries to clamp down on the Internet, but the U.S. government is hardly a shrinking violet, at least according to Web behemoth Google.

Google, whose sites include its search engine, YouTube and Gmail, released data last week on the number of requests it has received from the United States and other governments to remove content from its sites or provide information about specific users.

Brazil leads the way in both categories — because China no longer counts — but the United States is near the top, according to the company’s new Government Requests Web site, which is based on data collected between July and December 2009.

For example, U.S. government agencies asked the company to remove content from its sites in 123 cases, which is far less than Brazil (291), but roughly double the numbers for South Korea (64) and the United Kingdom (59). The company complied, in part or in full, in 80.5 percent of the cases.

U.S. agencies also are not shy about sniffing around for information on specific users. Brazil leads again with 3,663 such requests, but the United States is close behind with 3,580.

Google cautions against interpreting the data strictly in terms of censorship. For example, many requests come from law enforcement officials looking to shut down child pornography sites or gather information for legitimate criminal investigations.

However, Google execs also want the public to realize that Internet censorship is on the rise. They hope this data, which will be updated every six months, will keep a spotlight on the issue.

“Unless companies, governments and individuals do something, the Internet we know is likely to become ever more restricted — taking choice and control away from users and putting more power in the hands of those who would limit access to information,” David Drummond, chief legal officer and senior vice president of corporate development at Google, wrote in the Washington Post last week.

Fans of the new Web site include officials at the American Civil Liberties Union, who said they have been calling on Google and other companies to take this step for years. They also hope the data will spur Congress to update the Electronic Communications Privacy Act to better protect personal data.

“Americans for too long have been kept in the dark about how their private information is stored, used and shared,” said Laura Murphy, director of ACLU’s legislative office in Washington, D.C., in a statement released last week. “It is our hope that this tool will help Americans to better understand the relationship between private companies and our government.”

But Google’s data leaves something to be desired, writes Cnet’s Tom Krazit.

“It said the numbers include requests from authorities that Google contests, but the tool doesn't break out the data for the number of times Google complied or refused requests for information on individuals,” Krazit writes. “It does say how often — in general — it complies with takedown requests but does not provide specifics.”

ChannelWeb’s Rob Wright notes a curious connection between the Web site and the recent privacy brouhaha surrounding the launch of the Google Buzz social networking service. Coincidentally, privacy regulators from 10 countries got together to send Google executives a letter last week expressing their concerns about privacy holes in Google products.

“The letter, of course, is somewhat ironic since it was authored by some of the same countries who have been pressuring Google for more user data,” Wright points out.

Requests to remove content

Brazil: 291
Germany: 188
India: 142
United States: 123
South Korea: 64
United Kingdom: 59
Italy: 57
Argentina: 42
Spain: 32
Australia: 17

Requests for data on users

Brazil: 3,663
United States: 3,580
United Kingdom: 1,166
India: 1,061
France: 846
Italy: 550
Germany: 458
Spain: 324
Australia: 155
Argentina: 98

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