Google Goes Transparent on Government Data Requests

Google Transparency Report

You may worry about Google's use of your private data, but Google would remind you it's how the government (here or abroad) uses that data that's important. Hence the search giant is launching new tools today to improve transparency on these matters.

Google's new openness effort is warehoused at google.com/transparencyreport, and according to Google spokesperson Niki Fenwick, who spoke to The New York Times about it, the idea really is an altruistic one: It's to "provide transparency, and we're hoping that transparency is a deterrent to censorship."

The new Transparency Report is a one-stop shop for all of the potentially censorial goings on that happen to Google's sites and its data on the userbase. The eye-grabbing feature of the new report is a central page that charts who is blocking which Google sites around the world, based on traffic data at each of the various Google offerings. This is similar to an existing feature, but Google's now giving it a more prominent role and has spit-and-polished it to include some details on the particular blockages. It's real-time, so if you're a keen observer of world affairs it may even be a useful way to see whether governments knee-jerk to bring down Google during particular clashes.

Also listed in the new page is a report that summarizes when Google receives a request for information from a government body--a journal, if you will, of when someone official wants to spy on the data Google retains about a business or individual or when Google is legally requested to take something offline, such as hate propaganda. This list is also not new, but has been given a more prominent position in the new report, and unlike the availability list it's only updated every several months or so. Chinese data is missing from this because in China such official requests are considered state secrets--and Google's evidently decided not to rile up the Chinese government any more by breaking the seal on these censorial acts.

Whether or not the new service will actually act as a deterrent for censorship is debatable: It's not as if Google is publicly nailing "offending" nations or bodies to the door to name and shame them. Instead it's quietly collecting all this data in one place, where it may become useful to political types or free-speech activists. And when deeper analytical probes into the data become available in the future, the Transparency Report is likely to become a pretty powerful tool. Meanwhile we'd make a request for Google to add just one page to the system: Identifying those moments when Google itself is playing fast and loose with user data, like its slip-up on the launch of Google Buzz.

Google censor data

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