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Google Provides Law Enforcement and Courts with User Information, Censors Content

Tech giant Google congratulated itself in October 2011 for refusing two “takedown” requests from U.S. law enforcement agencies that claimed videos of police brutality posted on YouTube were defamatory. Google owns YouTube, the Internet’s most popular video-sharing site.

A “local law enforcement agency,” which Google did not identify, was one of the authorities that requested removal of the police brutality videos, “which we did not remove,” Google said.

However, the company’s own data shows that Google often complies when authorities want content removed, and nearly always turns over sensitive user information when requested by courts and law enforcement officials.

Google’s online transparency report, which is updated every six months, indicates that the company complied with around 48 percent of U.S. court orders and executive or law enforcement takedown requests in 2011.

“Police seem to be advising Google on what material might be breaking the law, and then Google decides to censor this material without a court order” in some cases, said Jim Kilock, executive director of the Open Rights Group.

Kilock added that YouTube and other public media platforms are becoming police tools to gather evidence, and are sometimes co-opted by law enforcement to potentially stifle dissent and criticism. Google’s own transparency report fuels that concern.

U.S. governmental requests for user information rose 38 percent in 2011 compared with the previous year, to 12,271 requests for data related to 23,300 users. Alarmingly, Google provided authorities with the requested user information, either “fully or partially,” 93 percent of the time.

“So while [Google is] making something of a stand on removing data,” such as videos of police brutality, tech blogger Devin Coldewey wrote, “they don’t seem to have any trouble giving it out” to courts and law enforcement agencies.

The U.S. topped the list of countries requesting user information from Google, and also had a high number of takedown requests: 172 court orders and 107 executive or law enforcement requests in 2011. Russia, on the other hand, submitted fewer than 30 takedown requests during the same year.


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