Ethical Performance
inside intelligence for responsible business


Google comes clean on censorship request data

November 2010

Internet search engine giant Google has released data on the censorship and surveillance it has been asked to carry out by governments around the world, though China is conspicuous by its absence.

The company’s latest Transparency Report details, on a country-by-country basis, various requests made by governments over the past year, ranging from orders to remove content from YouTube to requests for user information.

In the US, for example, Google received 7867 data requests and 151 removal requests, including one request for the removal of 169 items from YouTube, which the company owns. Google gives data on its compliance with censorship requests, which stands at about 80 per cent in the US, but not on how much data it hands over on users.

The US asked for the most data concerning users, but the Brazilian government was the most active in seeking the removal of content. In the developed world, Spain is probably the least proactive in the area, seeking censorship just 48 times, and user information 696. The UK asked for user information four times as often, and sought the removal of twice as much content.

Information is missing for China, however, with Google noting: ‘Chinese officials consider censorship demands to be state secrets, so we cannot disclose that information at this time.’

The move follows news of a compromise reached between Google and the Chinese government allowing the company to continue operating in the country. Beijing had announced that Google’s licence would be revoked if it continued to provide automatically uncensored search results to Chinese users. The search engine company has now agreed to provide uncensored material as an option, in a partial victory for its anti-censorship fight.

After a row with the government over censorship, Google had been automatically redirecting users in China to its Hong Kong site, where results are uncensored. Under the new agreement with the government, Google has added a link to within the censored Chinese site.

The agreement has been seen as a partial climbdown by both parties., as a matter of course, continues to censor search results, while the extra click required may cost Google market share. The government, meanwhile, has been forced to compromise with one of the first companies to challenge its censorship laws. Sites from Hong Kong internet searches can still be blocked by the government and the licence will have to be renewed annually.

Following the release of the censorship tools, however, Google found itself in trouble again in the UK, after the Information Commissioner’s Office, the government’s privacy watchdog, announced it would re-investigate the company following revelations about personal information it collected from wi-fi networks in the course of its Street View project. Similar Google activities have been investigated in other countries, including France, Germany and Canada.

Google’s senior vice president Alan Eustace has said the company is ‘mortified by what happened, but confident that... changes to our processes and structure will significantly improve our internal privacy and security practices for the benefit of all our users’. He admits that ‘in some instances entire e-mails and URLs were captured, as well as passwords’.

Google | Global | Transparency


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