February 24, 2018

Google Publishes Data on Government Data and Takedown Requests

Citizens have long wondered how often their governments ask online service providers for data about users, and how often governments ask providers to take down content. Today Google took a significant step on this issue, unveiling a site reporting numbers on a country-by-country basis.

It’s important to understand what is and isn’t included in the data on the Google site. First, according to Google, the data excludes child porn, which Google tries to block proactively, worldwide.

Second, the site reports requests made by government, not by private individuals. (Court orders arising from private lawsuits are included, because the court issuing the order is an arm of government.) Because private requests are excluded, the number of removal requests is lower than you might expect — presumably removal requests from governments are much less common than those from private parties such as copyright owners.

Third, Google is reporting the number of requests received, and not the number of users affected. A single request might affect many users; or several requests might focus on a single user. So we can’t use this data to estimate the number of citizens affected in any particular country.

Another caveat is that Google reports the country whose government submitted the request to Google, but this may not always be the government that originated the request. Under Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties, signatory countries agree to pass on law enforcement data requests for other signatories under some circumstances. This might account for some of the United States data requests, for example, if other countries asked the U.S. government to make data requests to Google. We would expect there to be some such proxy requests, but we can’t tell from the reported data how many there were. (It’s not clear whether Google would always be able to distinguish these proxy requests from direct requests.)

With these caveats in mind, let’s look at the numbers. Notably, Brazil tops both the data-requests list and the takedown-requests list. The likely cause is the popularity of Orkut, Google’s social network product, in Brazil. India, where Orkut is also somewhat popular, appears relatively high on the list as well. Social networks often breed disputes about impersonation and defamation, which could lead a government to order release of information about who is using a particular account.

The U.S. ranks second on the data-requests list but is lower on the takedown-requests list. This is consistent with the current U.S. trend toward broader data gathering by law enforcement, along with the relatively strong protection of free speech in the U.S.

Finally, China is a big question mark. According to Google, the Chinese government claims that the relevant data is a state secret, so Google cannot release it. The Chinese government stands conspicuously alone in this respect, choosing to deny its citizens even this basic information about their government’s activities.

There’s a lot more information I’d like to see about government requests. How many citizens are affected? How many requests does Google comply with? What kinds of data do governments seek about Google users? And so on.

Despite its limitations, Google’s site is a valuable step toward transparency about governments’ attempts to observe and control their citizens’ online activities. I hope other companies will follow suit, and that Google will keep pushing on this issue.

Comments

  1. They show compliance (as a percentage) – at least for removal requests.

    • You’re correct. I revised the post to remove the error. Thanks for pointing it out.

      • Anonymous says:

        “How many requests does Google comply with?” is still in your list of questions at the end.

        It would be nice if they included that percentage in the table, but it’s at least currently there when you click on the country (I didn’t check if they made the underlying dataset available in XML or some other machine readable format).

  2. Anonymous says:

    the number for Germany is quite high, too — but nobody uses Orkut there, so it’s probably mostly Nazi-related (i.e. ban swastikas from image search and Holocaust denial pages).
    I found the number of block requests from the US interesting, because I thought the only problem was DCMA Takedown Notices (which are not counted) and Freedom of Speech covered everything else. Is there more information about the specific court orders?

    • Anonymous says:

      Don’t be so sure. German privacy and libel laws are quite strong. It would not be uncommon for a judge to force Google to remove data which negatively impacts the reputation of a person or company.

      IANAL but I believe the burden is (similar to the UK system) on you to prove that you were right to say what you said. The other side often only has to show negative impact and is not required to show that the speech is false/untrue.

      There was a case related to Wikipedia where criminals who served their time wanted their names expunged from Wikipedia and the judge agreed — Streisand effect of course.

  3. BoingBoing pointed today to a delicious Downfall adaptation on the takedowns of Downfall adaptations: http://www.boingboing.net/2010/04/22/hitlers-pissed-off-a.html

  4. flamsmark says:

    So far, all the discussion of this tool has been talking about total numbers in each jurisdiction. Wouldn’t it make more sense to consider requests per capita? Perhaps requests per internet-connected capita might be the best assessment.

    Since – and for good reason – Google gives very general and non-granular data, it’s hard for us to make detailed assessments about these sorts of distributions. Perhaps Google would be so kind as to give us some more analysis?