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Google Collaborates with Foreign Governments and Courts to provide Private Information

January 29th 2012

Computer Topics - google logo

There has been much speculation, conjecture, outrage, and confusion over an announcement by Google, the famed Internet search engine, over the consolidation of its various services. In a message to Internet users who use Google’s services, the U.S. based company told customers in an email, “We’re getting rid of over 60 different privacy policies across Google and replacing them with one that’s a lot shorter and easier to read. Our new policy covers multiple products and features, reflecting our desire to create one beautifully simple and intuitive experience across Google.” The change is set for March 1.

Besides the change in its privacy policy, Google continues to garner attention for what critics fear is a form of collaboration with governments that has implications not only for customers’ privacy but human rights as well. Member of Congress have requested that Google answer a series of questions about the new policy before March 1. Members of the Energy and Commerce committee, including ranking minority member Henry Waxman (D) and subcommittee chairman Cliff Stearns (R), signed the letter that demands that Google describe “describe all information that Google collects from its consumers now.”

The letter also asked, “How will this information change after the new privacy policy has been implemented?” in addition to requesting clarification about how the company will use the new information it collects. The letter also asked “Please explain if consumers will have the option to op-out of any data collection, usage practices, and infromation sharing between Google's many services, including Gmail, Google Search, and YouTube. If so, how can a consumer make this request successfully? If not, why not?” A blog entry for Google provided an intial response to public concerns:

  • You still have choice and control. You don’t need to log in to use many of our services, including Search, Maps and YouTube. If you are logged in, you can still edit or turn off your Search history, switch Gmail chat to “off the record,” control the way Google tailors ads to your interests, use Incognito mode on Chrome, or use any of the other privacy tools we offer.
  • We’re not collecting more data about you. Our new policy simply makes it clear that we use data to refine and improve your experience on Google — whichever products or services you use. This is something we have already been doing for a long time.

Apparently seeking to allay customer concerns over privacy, Google declared on a webpage dedicated to privacy concerns, “Our goal is to provide you with as much transparency and choice as possible, through products like Google Dashboard and Ads Preferences Manager, alongside other tools. Our privacy principles remain unchanged.” Google promises that it will not sell customers’ information to third parties; “And we'll never sell your personal information or share it without your permission (other than rare circumstances like valid legal requests).”

A page on the Google website explains the sorts of information it collects from customers, as follows:

  • Information you give us. For example, many of our services require you to sign up for a Google Account. When you do, we’ll ask for personal information, like your name, email address, telephone number or credit card. If you want to take full advantage of the sharing features we offer, we might also ask you to create a publicly visible Google Profile, which may include your name and photo.
  • Information we get from your use of our services. We may collect information about the services that you use and how you use them, like when you visit a website that uses our advertising services or you view and interact with our ads and content.
  • We may collect device-specific information (such as your hardware model, operating system version, unique device identifiers, and mobile network information including phone number). Google may associate your device identifiers or phone number with your Google Account.
  • When you use our services or view content provided by Google, we may automatically collect and store certain information in server logs. This may include details of how you used our service, such as your search queries; and telephony log information like your phone number, calling-party number, forwarding numbers, time and date of calls, duration of calls, SMS routing information, and types of calls.

Cooperation with foreign governments

In addition to the changes described above, Google is moving to satisfy requests by governments “to remove information from Google products, such as blog posts or YouTube videos.” In a question-and-answer format, a page on the Google website describes such requests and the kinds of information required:

What is a user data request?
Government agencies generally make user data requests for information about Google users or accounts in criminal cases.

Is this data comprehensive?
No. While we have tried to report as accurate a number as possible, the statistics are not 100 percent comprehensive or accurate. For example, we have not included statistics for countries where we've received fewer than 30 requests for user data in criminal cases during the reporting period. Where the numbers of requests are relatively low from a particular country, revealing the statistics could place important investigations at risk and interfere with public safety efforts of the authorities.

On another page, the Internet giant describes how it receives requests from governments from the around the world to “remove content from our services and hand over user data.”

The website says that it receives requests from government agencies and courts around the world, as do other technology and communications companies:

Governments ask companies to remove content for many different reasons. For example, some content removals are requested due to allegations of defamation, while others are due to allegations that the content violates local laws prohibiting hate speech or pornography. Laws surrounding these issues vary by country, and the requests reflect the legal context of a given jurisdiction. We hope this tool will be helpful in discussions about the appropriate scope and authority of government requests.

The website offered a list of the countries that requested information, or for content to be removed or blocked. Notable among these during the January – June 2011 period, is China. According to Google, three such requests were made during time while, in addition, YouTube videos were unavailable. All Google services were unavailable in Libya during this period, coinciding with the what has been termed the “Arab Spring” and the downfall of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

According to Google, for Turkey, “We received court orders and requests from the Telecommunications Communication Presidency of the Information and Communications Technologies Authority to remove YouTube videos and blogs that documented details about the private lives of political officials. We restricted Turkish users from accessing YouTube videos that appeared to violate local laws and removed the blogs for violating Blogger’s Terms of Service. Blogger was partially inaccessible in Turkey during this time period.”

Requests from Germany, Spain, and Russia increased during this period, according to Google. This was also true for the United Kingdom. According to Google, for the United Kingdom, “The number of content removal requests we received increased by 71 percent compared to the previous reporting period.” As for the United States, Google reported “We received a request from a local law enforcement agency to remove YouTube videos of police brutality, which we did not remove. Separately, we received requests from a different local law enforcement agency for removal of videos allegedly defaming law enforcement officials. We did not comply with those requests, which we have categorized in this Report as defamation requests. The number of content removal requests we received increased by 70 percent compared to the previous reporting period. The number of user data requests we received increased by 29 percent compared to the previous reporting period.” Google’s country data showed no requests from Israel.

Martin Barillas also edits Speroforum.com


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