Google Transparency Report reveals record high government requests

Governments and courts in 31 countries requested data from 33,634 Google users or accounts in the second half of 2012 according to the company’s latest Transparency Report.

While the number of data requests rose by two per cent — from 20,938 to 21,389 — the proportion of requests Google fully or partially complied with dropped by one point — to 66 per cent.

The US led the pack in number of requests, accounts specified and percentage honoured. American law enforcement agencies issued 8,438 requests for data from 14,791 accounts, 88 per cent of which Google fully or partially complied with. Other countries issuing more than 1,000 requests in late 2012 were India, France, Germany, the UK and Brazil.

The 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) compels Google to comply with government requests. This was the company’s first Transparency Report to breakdown the proportion of requests by legal process used.

68 per cent of requests came via subpoenas — without a warrant — under the ECPA. Warrants are not required for access to data more than 180 days old. 22 per cent of requests came with a warrant, and the remaining 10 per cent were uncategorised.

“We believe the US laws should be updated,” William Echikson, Head of Free Expression Policy and PR for EMEA at Google, told Index. “Our users deserve to have their online correspondence and documents afforded the same legal protections from government access as they get for their physical documents.”

According to the report, Google reviews each request to ensure its compliance with “both the spirit and the letter of the law” and sometimes tries to narrow the data requested.

“Debates about government surveillance should start with data,” Echikson added.  “Our disclosures are only a tiny sliver of what’s happening on the Internet at large.”

Echikson said he hopes more companies and governments will join Google to increase transparency and keep citizens informed by releasing similar data. Competitors and collaborators alike are doing just that, but to varying degrees and with varying success.

In 2012, Dropbox, LinkedIn and Twitter shared similar statistics. The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s (EFF) 2012 report “Who Has Your Back” rates 18 companies on transparency regarding government requests for user data. These ratings take into account whether companies tell their users about government data demands and whether they fight for user privacy in courts and congress. Only, an ISP based in California, earned full stars in each category of EFF’s privacy and transparency report.

Google’s latest Transparency Report does not include content removal requests. Company officials said those numbers will be released separately in several months time.

Brian Pellot is the digital policy adviser at Index.