Google Inc. moved to highlight the issue of government censorship and demands for information about Web users, just as the Internet company came under fire from a group of government officials over the way it handles user privacy.
The Silicon Valley giant Tuesday disclosed for the first time the number of requests it has received from government agencies for data about its users. Google also disclosed how many government requests it gets to remove content from its search engine, YouTube video site, Blogger blogging software and other services.
Google is also showing how often it complies with government demands to remove Web content and said it later plans to include how often it turns over data on users. Google’s disclosure tool, an online country map, excluded data for China where Google says numerating the requests would be illegal.
David Drummond, Google’s chief legal officer, said the company decided that “greater transparency” about its activities could lead to less censorship. “We hope this tool will shine some light on the scale and scope of government requests for censorship and data around the globe,” he wrote in a blog post.
Google’s move comes as its critics continue to accuse the company and its peers of being reckless with user data. On Tuesday, a group of privacy commissioners from countries including Canada, France and the United Kingdom held a press conference to push Google to build better privacy protections into its services. On Monday, the group sent a letter scolding Google over privacy.
A Google spokesman said the company “released the tool now because we thought it would be useful in conversations about this trend.”
Google is pushing a broad campaign to try to curb censorship, an issue that contributed to a recent decision to shut down its censored search service in China. While Google faces heightened criticism for not doing enough to explain how it uses the information it collects, the company is trying to draw attention to other entities that seek user data.
Privacy advocates—who have long hounded Internet companies to be more open about how they use what they collect—praised the move. “It puts some numbers behind all the stories we have,” said Cindy Cohn, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based digital rights non-proft organization.
Others cautioned the raw numbers are hard to interpret, in part because there is little to compare them with. But they said that showing how countries stack up is a first step.
Google says government requests for user data go through Google’s legal team, which examines each to see if it is valid based on the law, narrows the request if possible and complies only when it must legally do so. Some requests are backed by court order; others aren’t.
The company says it tries to notify users when information about their accounts has been requested. A Google spokesman said it is sometimes asked for account and log-in information.
The company’s new disclosure tool shows that Brazil made the most requests for user data during the last six months of 2009, with 3,663. The U.S. was second with 3,580. Brazil also led with 291 requests for removal of content, with Germany in second place and the U.S. fourth, behind India.
Brazil’s Ministério Público Federal, its federal prosecution service, said in a statement late Tuesday that it “acts based on reports of crime or complaints received directly from users” or forwarded by a nonprofit dedicated to child safety, according to a translation of the statement.
“The information released today by Google demonstrates the care with which all levels of law enforcement agencies treat electronically protected data,” said a spokeswoman for the Justice Department. She said the number of requests in the U.S. “reflects a targeted approach by law enforcement agencies to effectively root out” crimes by criminals such as identity thieves and child predators.
The Mountain View, Calif., company stressed limitations to the data, which don’t include countries where it receives a small amount of requests or statistics that could jeopardize important investigations. In the case of YouTube, the company said the data doesn’t include requests by government agencies for removal of copyrighted content.
In their Monday letter to Google, the privacy commissioners scolded the company for what they describe as a range of privacy abuses, ranging from inadequate protections in its social-networking service Buzz to its procedures for retaining images it gathers for its Street View mapping services. It calls on Google to create “privacy-protective” default settings and make it easy for people to delete their accounts, among other measures.
“We are increasingly concerned that, too often, the privacy rights of the world’s citizens are being forgotten as Google rolls out new technological applications,” reads the letter, which also asks for Google to issue it a response for how it plans to meet these requirements. “Privacy cannot be sidelined in the rush to introduce new technologies to online audiences around the world,” it states.
A Google spokesman said in its response to the letter Monday that the company has “discussed all these issues publicly many times before” and had nothing to add.
European authorities have been among the Internet giant’s harshest critics when it comes to privacy issues, pressuring the company to shorten the time it retains search logs, for example.
European governments blasted a settlement between Google, authors and publishers over digital books in part over concerns with what Google would do with users’ reading records.
Criticism is the U.S has been building too. A group of lawmakers recently asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Google’s roll-out of its Buzz service, which they contend exposed private information about Google users. Monday’s letter also dwells on Buzz, claiming its launch “betrayed a disappointing disregard for fundamental privacy norms and laws.” Days after launching Buzz, Google acknowledged it should have made some user privacy controls more prominent and adjusted the service.