The answer is: not always. But the number of requests is going up.
Google released it’s annual Transparency Report Sunday. It contained the finding that U.S. government requests for Google users' private data increased by 37 percent over the previous year. What exactly is the government doing with all this data, and should you be concerned?
During the last six months of 2011, Google received 6,321 requests from the U.S. government for user and account data, together with 187 content removal requests for 6,192 items. Reading through the notes and embedded links within the Transparency Report, it appears that many of the government requests for user and account data were linked to criminal investigations and third-party requests by the U.S. on behalf of other countries. A majority of the removal requests were for content on Google AdWords and YouTube.
Certainly, a 37 percent increase in government requests for user account data is “troubling,” as Google notes in a blog post about the report. It indicates that government could be warming up to the idea of selectively censoring the Internet on a case-by-case basis or eroding our right to due process. And, yes, Google is a member of the Digital Due Process coalition. The good news is that, for now, Google attributes much of this increased activity to a greater number of Google sites, such as Google+ or YouTube, and the resulting increase in content generated.
But here’s where the story gets interesting: When it comes to this list, the U.S. government can count among its peers totalitarian dictatorships and oppressive regimes. Requests from foreign governments are have increased at an "alarming” rate. Typically, foreign governments must request the information from Google directly. For example, 58 times Russia requested a user's personal information from Google. They were turned down every time.
Keep in mind, too, that the Google Transparency Report only covers the part of the Internet that Google sees — not necessarily the parts of the Internet hidden behind walled gardens. So it’s more than likely these governments are sending similar requests to companies such as Facebook and Twitter.
For now, Google appears to have stood its ground more often than it has given in. A YouTube video documenting possible police brutality was allowed to stand despite a recommendation for removal by an unspecified law enforcement agency. When the Passport Canada office requested that a YouTube video of a man urinating on his Canadian passport and then flushing it down the toilet be removed, Google said no.
It’s easy to imagine a dystopian future, however, in which actions like urinating on a passport or posting videos of police activities would be seen as subversive and grounds for a possible criminal investigation. And it’s also easy to imagine a future where governments would want to hide certain information from Google’s search engine results or censor the types of free political speech allowed online. From this perspective, the Google Transparency Report is a step in the right direction when it comes to holding the U.S. government responsible for its actions and alerting us to the ways that authorities foreign and domestic are attempting to bend the Internet to their own purposes.
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