Google launches interactive "Transparency Report"

Google has launched a “Transparency Report” that shows which governments have asked for information about users or requested Google to censor or take down content.

The set of interactive tools have been designed to highlight government intervention on the web, showing, for example, when a government blocks access to or removes content on YouTube and how often officials have asked for information from the search and web giant.

It also shows the requests made to Google, demanding access to information on users of services such as Gmail over the past six months.

The map shows, for example, that in the period from January 2010 to June 2010, the United States government asked Google about user information on 4,287 occasions and asked it to remove content on 128 occasions. In the UK Google received 1,343 requests for access to data from the UK Government.

We contacted Google to see if we could understand, in broad terms, the nature of the requests. However, it was unable to say – transparency report indeed. 

David Drummond, SVP, corporate development and chief legal officer at Google, wrote: “Free expression is one of our core values. We believe that more information means more choice, more freedom and ultimately more power for the individual.

“Free expression is, of course, also at the heart of Google’s business. Our products are specifically designed to help people create, communicate, share opinions and find information across the globe. We hope this step toward greater transparency—and these tools—will help in ongoing discussions about the free flow of information.”

Digging around the FAQs we found the following: “The requests we receive for user data come from a variety of government agencies with different legal authorities and different forms of requests. They don’t follow a standard format or necessarily seek the same kinds of information. Requests may ask for data about a number of different users or just one user.

“A single request may ask for several types of data but be valid only for one type and not for another; in those cases, we disclose only the information we believe we are legally required to share. Given all this complexity, it’s a difficult task to categorise and quantify these requests in a way that adds meaningful transparency, but we plan to in the future.”

Clicking on an individual country on the map will also provide information on the number of  removal requests which were fully or partially complied with. It also lets us know which Google services were affected.

For example, in the period from July 2009 to December 2009, there were 7 U.S. court orders to remove content from YouTube, and 6 court orders to remove content from Blogger.

Google said that Germany’s numbers for take downs were high relative to others.

It said a substantial number of the German removal requests resulted from court orders that related to defamation in search results, both in the first half of 2010 and in the last six months of 2009.

In the last half of 2009, approximately 11 percent of the German removal requests related to pro-Nazi content or content advocating denial of the Holocaust, both of which are illegal under German law.

Google has admitted that the stats aren’t “100 percent comprehensive or accurate.”

“We have not included statistics for countries where we’ve received fewer than 30 requests for user data in criminal cases during the 6-month period,” it said.

China also hasn’t been included as Chinese officials consider censorship demands state secrets.