Google is Getting it

Opinion | Margaret Childs | May 2013

I guess I shouldn’t be startled by the news that governments and law enforcement are hitting up Google for user data – more so than ever before. Or that multiple governments have asked that content be removed, also on a record-breaking scale. What is worth applauding is that Google has for three years now been releasing details about these requests in their transparency report.

In the second half of 2012 alone, governments made over 21,300 inquiries on some 34,000 users’ accounts worldwide.

Government requests to remove content went up by 72% in the first half of 2013 and by another 26% in the second half – amounting to over 2,000 requests from officials to remove almost 25,000 pieces of content. About 30% claimed the content qualified as "defamation", another 5% were for reasons of "privacy and security".

The increase reflects the growing power of the Internet to create accepted truths. Certainly the number of Google users is steadily rising. And more governments have figured out its potential to spread the "wrong" information. China’s "Great Firewall" is making headlines, Moroccans can’t access Google Earth and Turkish people can’t use Google’s blogger service. YouTube is not available in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Iran or Pakistan. All Google products have been suspended in Syria since December 2012.

The movie Innocence of Muslims resulted in inquiries from 20 countries and removal requests from 17. The film was restricted in a further eight countries and temporarily restricted in two, due to "difficult circumstances".

Google’s role in all this? As a tool for mail, blogging, uploading, searching the web, it has essentially developed a world-wide virtual monopoly. If we use Google, it can essentially have us under its thumb. At the same time, so could our doctors, our pharmacists, our banks, anyone who has important information about us.

But Google is now sharing the other side, telling us who wants our information.

This is what a tool this powerful ought to be doing.

Other articles from this issue: