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Google stats show government net spying on the rise

Requests for user data, content blocking both up

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Google published the latest edition of its Transparency Report on Tuesday, and if there's one thing we can learn from its findings, it's that government surveillance and government interference with online services are both increasing – at a worryingly rapid rate.

Twice each year, the Chocolate Factory publishes a report detailing the number of requests it receives to hand over user data or to remove content from its servers, with stats broken down country by country. Predictably – and yet no less troubling for it – the latest figures show a marked increase in both categories.

For the period from January to June 2012, requests to disclose user data were up 14.7 per cent from the previous reporting period, while requests to remove content from Google servers were up a stunning 70.9 per cent.

Moreover, individual countries showed even worse trends. While requests to remove content were "only" up 46 per cent in the United States, they increased 98 per cent in the UK, 132 per cent in France, and 145 per cent in Germany.

But the most dubious distinction goes to Turkey, which increased the number of content-removal requests it sent to Google by 1,013 per cent over the last six months. According to the report, even though the Chocolate Factory often did not actually remove content at Turkey's request, it nonetheless blocked Turkish users from accessing 63 per cent of all YouTube videos.

Still, the comparatively meager rise in the number of removal requests Google received from the US can hardly be seen as a badge of honor. Although other countries increased the number of requests they sent by a larger margin, the US still leads the world in the number of requests it sends overall. During Google's most recent reporting period, it sent more than five times as many requests to remove content as Turkey did.

The US sends Google more requests to disclose user data than any other nation, too. For the January-to-June reporting period alone, US government agencies sent 7,969 such requests, which named a total of 16,281 users. By comparison, India, which came in second in the number of requests sent, sought data on just 3,467 users, despite having nearly four times the population of the US.

Equally troubling, Google complied with 90 per cent of the requests it received from the US government during the period measured, compared to 42 per cent for France, 39 per cent for Germany, and 64 per cent for the UK.

On the one hand, that may simply mean that more requests filed in the US tended to be legally valid, while requests from other jurisdictions were more likely to be fraudulent or incomplete. According to its FAQ, Google always tries to determine whether requests are invalid, and it won't comply if they are.

On the other hand, the fact that Google honored so many requests suggests that under the current legal system, the more requests for user data the US government files, the more user data it will receive.

And these figures only show what's going on at Google. As Dorothy Chou, the search giant's senior policy analyst, explains, "The information we disclose is only an isolated sliver showing how governments interact with the Internet, since for the most part we don't know what requests are made of other technology or telecommunications companies."

Chou points out that a few other companies – such as Dropbox, LinkedIn, Sonic.net, and Twitter – have begun sharing their own statistics, much like Google does. Still, given the number of different online services the typical web user interacts with on a daily basis, these firms are clearly just the tip of the iceberg, and the true extent of government involvement with the internet has yet to be revealed. ®

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