Government watchdogs accuse Google of disregarding privacy… while Google reveals which governments are asking it for user information
Search giant Google has published a list detailing the number of requests made by government agencies around the world for customer data and removal of content in the second half of 2009. The publication of the list signals the launch of Google’s Government Requests tool – a page which shows the level of requests Google is receiving from governments.
The list does not include figures for China, which regards such information as a state secret. Among the other nations, Brazil appears to be the most meddlesome government, making the most demands for information to be removed (291), and also making the most requests for information about users to assist criminal investigations (3663), between 1 July and 31 December.
Governments jostle for Google user data
The United States, United Kingdom and India all made more than 1000 demands for user information during the time period, with the US only trailing Brazil by 83. Meanwhile Germany made the second most requests for removal of content, with 188 requests, followed by India (142) and the United States (123). The UK made 59 requests.
“The vast majority of these requests are valid and the information needed is for legitimate criminal investigations,” wrote David Drummond (left), senior vice president of corporate development and chief legal officer at Google, in a blog post. “However, data about these activities historically has not been broadly available. We believe that greater transparency will lead to less censorship.”
The news follows Google’s decision last month to stop censoring its search results in China. The decision was made after a cyber attack allowed hackers to access the Gmail accounts of Chinese dissidents and human rights activists via phishing scams or malware placed on users’ computers.
“We want as many people in the world as possible to have access to our services, including users in mainland China, yet the Chinese government has been crystal clear throughout our discussions that self-censorship is a non-negotiable legal requirement,” said Drummond at the time.
Google accused of disregard for privacy
Google has today also come under fire from privacy watchdogs in 10 countries, who accused the company of having a “disappointing disregard” for the privacy of its users’ information.
Britain’s Information Commissioner, Chris Graham, and his counterparts in Canada, France, Germany and Italy have sent a letter to Google’s chief executive, Eric Schmidt, criticising the company’s delivery of both its Street View mapping service and its Buzz social networking site – which allows users to post comments, links, photos and videos for their Gmail contacts to see.
In particular with regard to Buzz, the letter criticised the way Google automatically assigned users a network of “followers”, from among people with whom they correspondeded most regularly on Gmail, when the service was first launched. It claimed that Google did not adequately inform Gmail users about how this new service would work, nor provide sufficient information to permit “informed consent decisions”.
“This violated the fundamental principle that individuals should be able to control the use of their personal information,” the letter stated. “Users instantly recognised the threat to their privacy and the security of their personal information, and were understandably outraged.”
The letter acknowledges that Google moved quickly to address the most privacy-intrusive aspects of Google Buzz, but expresses concern about how a product with such significant privacy issues was launched in the first place. “We would have expected a company of your stature to set a better example,” it said. “Launching a product in ‘beta’ form is not a substitute for ensuring that new services comply with fair information principles before they are introduced.”
Google is already facing legal battles in the wake of its fumbled launch of Google Buzz. Earlier this month a New York man began proceedings to sue the search engine for violating his privacy by exposing his Gmail contacts to the public without his consent.
Google was also hit with a wave of complaints about its Street View virtual mapping tool, after the service was expanded last month to cover “almost all” of the roads in the UK. Images of the views over people’s garden hedges, and of naked children, have raised concerns that the tool could be exploited by burglars and paedophiles, while others argue that people should be given the choice to opt in or out.