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China isn't the only country where Google has tussled with authorities over its freedom to operate unfettered.
Nearly a month after the country stopped censoring search results there, Google (GOOG) on Apr. 21 released data that detail requests from worldwide governments to take down content from its Web sites, or to turn over information about users of Google products including its search engine, YouTube, and its Blogger software.
Topping both lists for the second half of 2009 was Brazil, where Google has long wrangled with officials requesting information about alleged criminals who have created pages on Google's Orkut social networking site, which is among the country's most visited online destinations. "There is a lack of information about what governments do, and that makes people wonder," says Google deputy general counsel Nicole Wong.
Google, which operates the world's most used Internet search engine and markets a variety of other online software for work and pleasure, says releasing ranked lists of countries' requests for Google to disclose or modify its data can help fight censorship on the Web, which the company strongly opposes. "Greater transparency will lead to less censorship," Google Chief Legal Officer David Drummond said in a blog post announcing the disclosures.
In the U.S., Google has fought the Justice Dept. over requests to turn over data from its index of the Web and users' searches.
Of more than 40 countries listed on Google's new site, called Google Government Requests, Brazil topped the list of requests for both data, with 3,663, and to take down content, with 291 . U.S. authorities were second in data requests, with 3,580, followed by the United Kingdom (1,166) and India (1,061). Germany, India, and the U.S. followed Brazil when countries were ranked by the number of times they asked Google to remove information from its Web pages.
In Brazil, many official requests or court orders were related to charges of impersonation on Orkut, says Wong. Google complied with 82.5% of government requests from Brazilian authorities, she says.
Google's move to make government information requests public comes as the company expands in worldwide markets that operate under a broad range of laws and standards governing online freedoms. Google reported on Apr. 20 that 53% of its first-quarter revenues, or $3.6 billion, came from outside the U.S. "There's a wide variance of what is acceptable under local laws," says Kurt Opsahl, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which advocates for personal freedom on the Internet.
Google attorney Wong admits that the company's data are "imperfect"—a world map on its Government Requests site highlights the dozens of countries where it received requests in the second half of 2009, and indicates which portion of requests it complied with. But the data omit China, which considers such information secret, and also lack descriptions of the kind of requests Google is counting.
On Mar. 22, Google said it had shifted search services from mainland China to an unfiltered Hong Kong site, to let Chinese Internet users search Google in an uncensored fashion.
At least two U.S. groups are already putting the newly available data to use. Researchers at Chilling Effects Clearinghouse, a joint project between the Electronic Frontier Foundation and universities including Harvard and Stanford, are putting Google Government Requests under the microscope. "It's helpful to researchers to understand the scale of censorship in countries [by looking at] government requests," says Wendy Seltzer, who founded Chilling Effects Clearinghouse in 2001. Google's new data supplement information already being supplied to her by the company, and other companies including Yahoo (YHOO), she says.
Google's move may also prompt greater disclosures from its rivals. The search giant is a member of the Global Network Initiative, a nonprofit consortium that counts Microsoft (MSFT) and Yahoo as members. "All of the members are thinking about how to make the world more transparent," says Leslie Harris, CEO of the Center for Democracy & Technology, which advocates for privacy and free expression online and is a member of the consortium.
Sparking a debate appears to be at least part of Google's intent in disclosing which governments are clamoring loudest for its information. "We wanted to start conversations about the level of government activity" around the world, says Wong. "It's really hard to have these conversations about freedom of privacy and expressions without real numbers."