Google Reveals Government User Data Requests in Bi-Annual Report

Thursday, January 24, 2013, by Neil Barnes

Google’s bi-annual transparency report, released this past Wednesday, divulges user data requests Google received from governments and government agencies. Richard Salgado, Google’s legal director for law enforcement and information security, affirmed Google’s commitment to transparency by promising that Google will “keep looking for more ways to inform you about government requests and how we handle them.”

Once again, the US led all other governments in official requests for user data. Out of 21,839 requests Google received for information from July–December 2012, the US was responsible for 8,476 of them. Furthermore, the US increased its number of requests in that period by 6% compared to the prior six month period. Interestingly enough, the total number of affected users declined by 9% in the US, compared to 3% globally.

Google also described the various legal methods by which the US government requested user information. Google did not comply with every request. In fact, Google’s compliance rate fell to 88%, down 2% from the previous six month period. Breaking down the US government requests, Google revealed that 68% of the requests were subpoenas, 22% were search warrants, and 10% came from other legal methods (predominately court orders). The high number of subpoenas compared to search warrants can be explained by examining the 180-day rule, which states that users have “abandoned” online communications on third party servers after 180 days. Thus, the government can access that information with a subpoena instead of a search warrant. Search warrants require a showing of “probable cause” that user’s information is related to a crime. Subpoenas only require that there is a reasonable possibility that the information will provide information generally relevant to the investigation.

Content removal requests by the US government are on the rise – the January–June 2012 period saw a 46% increase over the previous six month period

Twitter is one of the few large internet companies that has joined Google in its commitment to transparency by releasing a regular transparency report. Social networking giant Facebook currently does not release a transparency report. Neither does Myspace. The lack of transparency reports concerns the American Civil Liberties Union, as it is difficult to modernize internet privacy laws without full knowledge of what data the government requests from online companies.

In the past, Google has released data pertinent to content takedown notices along with its bi-annual transparency report. However, Google has delayed the release of this information for the July–December 2012 period. Apparently the data will be released independent from a transparency report later this year. Google’s compliance rate with government content removal requests has historically been significantly lower than the compliance rate with user data requests. From January–June 2012, Google received five requests and one court order to remove Youtube videos for criticizing government entities, public officials, and law enforcement. Google refused to remove any of the videos. Content removal requests by the US government are on the rise – the January–June 2012 period saw a 46% increase over the previous six month period. How much more content removal requests by the US government has increased over the July–December 2012 period is anyone’s guess. Hopefully Google will soon publish its content takedown request information and end the speculation.