Google at odds with Israel, other countries, over privacy

Facing criticism, Google launches new application showing stats on gov't agencies info requests.

April 22, 2010 05:33
3 minute read.
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Facing criticism by a group of privacy commissioners from countries including Israel, Canada, France and the United Kingdom over its treatment of clients’ privacy, Internet giant Google turned the tables on Tuesday evening, when it launched a new application that discloses the number of requests it has received from government agencies for data about its users.

Quoting from the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and warning of rapidly growing government censorship of the Web, Google’s chief legal officer and senior vice president for corporate development, David Drummond, announced the launching of a new Google application that geographically maps out the requests Google receives from governments to reveal or remove information from the Web.

The figures, for the roughly 100 countries in which it operates, cover the final half 2009 and will be updated every six months.

“We are today launching a new Government Requests tool [] to give people information about the requests for user data or content removal we receive from government agencies around the world,” wrote Drummond in a blog marking the launch. “We hope this tool will shine some light on the scale and scope of government requests for censorship and data around the globe. We also hope that this is just the first step toward increased transparency about these actions across the technology and communications industries.”

According to Google, in the second half of 2009, Israel issued 30 data requests and less than 10 removal requests. By comparison, Google received 3,663 requests for user data and 291 requests to remove material from Brazil, which leads the world in data requests.

Other countries logging at least 1,000 requests for user data were the United States (3,580), United Kingdom (1,166) and India (1,061).

Google said that government requests for user data go through Google’s legal team, which examines each to see if it is valid based on the law, narrows the request if possible and complies only when it must legally do so. The company also said it tries to notify users when information about their accounts has been requested.

The launch of the new application came a day after Google CEO Eric Shmidt received a letter from the Privacy Commissioner of Canada and the heads of the data protection authorities in France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Ireland, Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain and the United Kingdom in which they express their concerns about privacy issues and particularly those related to Google’s new social networking service, Google Buzz.

“We are increasingly concerned that, too often, the privacy rights of the world’s citizens are being forgotten as Google rolls out new technological applications,” read the letter.

“The privacy problems associated with your initial global rollout of Google Buzz on February 9, 2010, were serious and ought to have been readily apparent to you. In essence, you took Google Mail [Gmail], a private, one-to-one Web-based e-mail service, and converted it into a social networking service, raising concern among users that their personal information was being disclosed.

“Google automatically assigned users a network of ‘followers’ from among people with whom they corresponded most often on Gmail, without adequately informing Gmail users about how this new service would work or providing sufficient information to permit informed consent decisions. This violated the fundamental principle that individuals should be able to control the use of their personal information.”

The letter went on to give credit to Google for their rapid response in fixing the situation, but stressed that “privacy cannot be sidelined in the rush to introduce new technologies to online audiences around the world.”

Israel’s signatory to the letter was Yoram Hacohen, the Justice Ministry’s commissioner on information privacy. In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, Hacohen stressed the importance of international cooperation on issues regarding the Internet.

“In a global world, many issues simply can’t be dealt with at a local level. It requires the cooperation of governments to meet today’s online challenges,” said Hacohen.

Hacohen emphasized that he and his colleagues were not out to attack Google and that the problem existed with many other companies around the world, but that the case of Google was a serious example of how things could go wrong.

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