A Benevolent Big Brother?
Iconic search giant Google (Stock Quote: GOOG) has built an empire of information that has given it unprecedented power to customize web services based on what the site tracks about its users. Despite the company’s well-known “don’t be evil” motto, Google has not been immune from certain governments’ worries about the information it makes available and that is being used for nefarious purposes.
Of course, Google wants to stay on everyone’s good side, and that often requires a delicate balance between assisting the governments that regulate its actions and ensuring the privacy of users eyeing the site’s lucrative ad content.
Google has publicized the amount, if not the specifics, of government requests for information, as well as government requests for content to be removed from search results. Many of these requests involve criminal investigations; others involve sensitive national-security information.
Google describes one request in its FAQ: "In 2009, for example, in Argentina a federal prosecutor claimed that information about him and his wife (a federal judge) had been posted for analysis on two political blogs and asked that we remove them. We removed a portion of one of the blogs for revealing private information about the judge, but otherwise did not comply."
Of course, Google is quick to point out that the number of requests is not a hard and fast appraisal of the amount of censorship in a given country, but it does indicate how heavy-handed different governments are in the battle to control information. Countries that make the most information requests are more likely to rely on Google for intelligence gathering and law enforcement, and those who make the most removal requests appear to feel more threatened than others by the amount of information available on the site and its subsidiaries for anyone to see.
Here, Mainstreet looks at the top 15 countries by the amount of requests to Google, and look into the privacy situation in each one.
Photo Credit: Gisela Giardino
15th Most Requests to Google: Portugal
In some ways the Wild West of the European Union, Portugal is known mostly for its signature wines and exquisite tilework, and as a prime vacation spot for travelers who want to see old Europe, from a bit off the beaten trail. With tourism so important for the country, it has cultivated its image in part by managing its relationship with the search giant, issuing 73 requests for data in the first half of this year, and fewer than 10 requests for information to be removed. Google complied with all of these requests, indicating that none were particularly controversial.
Photo Credit: agu2000_de
14th Most Requests to Google: Singapore
Singapore has always been famous for the tight fist with which it controls its population. Draconian measures, like making spitting or jaywalking criminal offenses that could send you to prison, remind citizens that the government has the final word on how to behave. While it did not make any requests for Google to remove information from its many properties, submitting 106 data requests put Singapore at number 14 on the list. Singaporeans would be wise to not use their Blogger account (a Google subsidiary) to write about how much fun they had jaywalking last weekend.
Photo Credit: Jerry Wong
13th Most Requests to Google: Chile
Chile’s experience with privacy is a complicated one, as the legacy of dictator Augusto Pinochet still influences the country 12 years after its transition back to democracy. From 1973 to 1998, the leader and his military backers continually oppressed opposition and “disappeared” dissenters in their attempt to keep a tight grip on power. The monitoring of regular citizens that enabled much of these activities generated a trove of data that has not yet been destroyed, and while the government is presumably not adding to the list under nefarious purposes these days, its 115 data requests in the first half of 2010 suggest, at least, that it is still paying attention.
Photo Credit: Gerardo Espindola
12th Most Requests to Google: Taiwan
Despite being officially a part of the People’s Republic of China, Taiwan’s nebulous sovereignty status frequently puts those dealing with the island in a confusing position. Google has not been free from this confusion, as it has not complied in any way with the 130 data and 11 removal requests made to it by Taiwanese authorities. While Google surely has no hard feelings toward the nation, its reluctance to act on these requests shows that, as in other areas, mainland China is the one in charge of Taiwan’s digital activities.
Photo Credit: Alex Lin
11th Most Requests to Google: Argentina
No stranger to an invasive and violent dictatorship either, Argentina took something of a different approach than its neighbor to the west in rewriting its privacy standards. Actions in the past few years have made it illegal for officials to store and track e-mails, or to keep past debtors on creditworthiness databases, and it has created a Personal Data Protection Agency to ensure that citizens’ information is not collected or used inappropriately. The first six months of 2010 saw 134 data requests and 12 requests to remove data from Google’s databases, the bulk of them concentrated on Google’s image search function. These are remniscent of an earlier case that set a precedent in demanding that Google remove the names and images of models and actresses with profiles on porn or escort sites from its Argentine portal. Google has complied with 83.3% of the country’s requests.
Photo Credit: Andrew
10th Most Requests to Google: South Korea
Compared with its rival to the north, South Korea appears to be a bastion of free speech, free enterprise and, well, freedom itself. There is one way, however, where the state shows its wariness of the growing power of corporations like Google, as it made 170 data requests and 38 requests to remove information from the site from January to July 2010. While Google has complied either fully or partially with 100% of those requests, South Koreans remain hostile to the company, which saw its local offices in Seoul raided by police initiating an investigation of Google’s data collection practices.
Photo Credit: Michael McDonough
9th Most Requests to Google: Australia
In addition to 200 requests for data from Google, the Australian government’s 14 removal requests pertain to 639 items it wants removed from the search engine’s databases. While Australia, like pretty much everyone else, was put off by the site’s collection of its citizens’ data for its Street View application, the tenor of the debate in Australia was quite a bit more hostile than elsewhere. Google has complied with 92.9% of the requests, and Australians will surely be watching that last 7.1% very closely.
Photo Credit: Presidency Maldives
8th Most Requests to Google: Spain
With 372 data requests to Google, and 16 removal requests in the first half of this year, Spain has made it clear that it acknowledges the place of the search giant in the modern world, but that its rights and responsibilities are still being defined. Spain has taken an active role in shaping that definition, as a federal court there recently absolved YouTube and Google, its parent company, from responsibility for copyrighted content users upload to the site. While courts in the U.S. reached largely the same conclusion, the company’s victory in Spain will help set a precedent for similar suits in other countries where Google faces legal challenges.
Photo Credit: justin.paine
7th Most Requests to Google: Italy
For those who believe a free press is essential to democracy, Italy is a very worrying place. Its democratically-elected president, Silvio Berlusconi, is a media magnate who owns the country’s biggest publishing house, as well as newspapers, magazines and three television channels. And three other channels he doesn’t own, but rather controls through his lieutenants in Congress. Such an extensive network means that most media in the country sit comfortably under the president’s thumb. It’s no surprise then that Italy has tried to exercise some control over online media too, issuing 69 removal requests and 651 requests for data in the first half of 2010. These requests encompass 1,655 individual items the government wants removed, with 1,639 of those identifying YouTube content, often under fire for violating copyrights held by local media outlets. In total, it has issued 31 court orders for content removal, and Google has complied with 97.1% of removal requests.
Photo Credit: Roberto
6th Most Requests to Google: Germany
It would appear that the German government is just as concerned as its citizens are about controlling the information that Google makes available. Considering the recent scandal involving the site’s Street View service making images of people’s homes available to anyone with an Internet connection, it is not surprising to know of the country’s efforts as a whole to manage its digital image in the first six months of this year. Among Germany’s 688 data requests and 124 removal requests in that period were 77 official court orders for the removal of content, which Google identifies as most commonly related to issues of defamation and Nazi-related propaganda. The site capitulated on the Street View issue (allowing people to opt out and have their houses blurred on the service), and Germans will surely hope it will be equally accommodating with new requests.
Photo Credit: Sign Language Ltd
5th Most Requests to Google: France
Starting out the top five countries with the most requests to Google, France takes a quantum leap beyond Germany with 1,017 requests for data and 25 requests for the removal of information from the company’s search, YouTube and Blogger databases. Interestingly, France has also issued two court orders for the removal of items from Google Suggest, the service that anticipates what users are searching for as they type queries into the Google search engine. France has a nuanced view of free speech, with laws that take a particularly broad definition of hate speech for example, and tries hard to manage the terms that people use in the press and on the Web. Some might call it censorship; the French consider it a matter of decency.
Photo Credit: Francois Bouchet
4th Most Requests to Google: U.K.
The United Kingdom has a complicated history with Internet privacy. Last year the country came under fire for its lax legal protections of citizens’ private information, prompting the EU to take legal action that would bring Britain’s laws in line with the stricter ones of the EU. The country made 1,343 requests for information from Google in the first half of this year, along with 48 removal requests. Google has only complied with 62.5% of those requests, hinting that perhaps Google doesn’t quite see eye-to-eye with British privacy laws either.
Photo Credit: Rogiro
3rd Most Requests to Google: India
The writing is on the wall for telecoms firms in India. As a number of governments raised concerns about not being able to monitor the content sent over Blackberry’s networks, India looks to be the first to order the company to allow the government access to its data. Applying this precedent to other stores of digital information, the Indian government indicated last month that it will ask Google to set up local servers in India and allow officials access to the data, which it believes can pose a security risk. For now, or at least for the first half of this year, India’s security concerns led it to send 1,430 data requests and 30 requests that Google remove information from its sites, with many relating to issues of defamation or impersonation on Orkut, Google's social networking site popular in India. As for compliance, Google says that is has fully or partially complied with only 53.3% of requests.
Photo Credit: runran
2nd Most Requests to Google: Brazil
They say everything’s bigger in Brazil, where any visiting tourist with a knowledge of Portuguese will hear the number of things that Brazilians claim are o mais grade do mundo (“the biggest in the world”). In addition to housing the world’s sixth (Sao Paolo) and 26th (Rio de Janeiro) largest cities, and the biggest soccer stadium in South America (Maracana – capacity 82,238), the country has the dubious honor of being the second-most heavy-handed in its management of digital content on Google. From January to June 2010, Brazilian officials made 2,435 data requests and 398 content removal requests encompassing a whopping 19,806 items in eight separate Google divisions. Fully half of the removal requests apply to Orkut, a social media site run by Google’s local office; another court order aimed at Google's photo sharing site Picasa requested the removal of more than 18,000 photos that it claimed showed images from copyrighted books. The company has complied with only 67.6% of requests, not surprising considering the sheer volume of items under consideration.
Photo Credit: Marco Gomes
Most Requests to Google: United States
And, not to be outdone, the United States tops the list of Google-meddlers, with 4,217 data requests and 128 removal requests in the first six months of 2010. The bulk of these requests focus on YouTube, which has been the subject of 31 court orders for the removal of content. Despite the volume of requests, Google has been able to fully or partially accommodate 82.8% of them, underscoring its commitment to good relations with the country that has hosted its headquarters in Silicon Valley since Google’s founding in 1998.
Photo Credit: Scott Beale
Read More: privacy & security