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Suppression of Internet activity rises

| Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2012, 9:08 p.m.

Government censorship and surveillance of online activity around the globe increased markedly in the first six months of 2012, Google reported on Tuesday.

Google's transparency report details takedown request from government agencies or organizations worldwide. Typical inquiries include a request to remove content that is in violation of copyright or local laws. The top reasons for court orders issued to Google are defamation, privacy and security.

Some examples of government takedown requests include: links to websites that allegedly defamed a politician's wife in Germany, 360 search results in India that may have violated a person's privacy and a request from the Russian Ministry of the Interior to remove 160 YouTube videos that supposedly contained extremist materials.

The report says that government agencies around the world, from 34,614 accounts, made 20,938 inquiries in the first half of 2012. When Google started its transparency report in 2010, the number of requests from July to December 2009 was 12,539.

Google reported the number of requests by governments for user data information, and the percentage of compliance. In the United States, the government requested data from Google 7,969 times, about 16,281 user accounts. The search giant complied 90 percent of the time.

Google's report gives insight into its data and possible trends overall, but does not paint a complete picture of how information might change hands between private companies and government agencies around the world.

“The information we disclose is only an isolated sliver showing how governments interact with the Internet, since for the most part we don't know what requests are made of other technology or telecommunications companies,” Google senior policy analyst Dorothy Chou said in a blog post. “But we're heartened that in the past year, more companies like Dropbox, LinkedIn, Sonic.net and Twitter have begun to share their statistics too.”

The rise in takedown requests has alarmed people in the technology community. Entrepreneur John Battelle questioned why other companies don't produce similar reports so that the public can get a much broader glimpse of online suppression.

“Where is Amazon's Transparency Report? Yahoo's? Microsoft's? And, of course, the biggest question in terms of scale and personal information — where is Facebook's? Oh, and of course, where is Apple's?” Battelle wrote in a blog post in June. “Put another way: If we are shifting our trust from the government to the corporation, who's watching the corporations?”

Google is an active member of the Digital Due Process Coalition, which has been pushing for reform of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. The group's members include Apple, Amazon, the ACLU, Facebook, Google and Twitter along with a slew of other big-name tech companies and civil liberties groups. Other technology companies, including Twitter and LinkedIn, are joining Google and releasing their own transparency reports.

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