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Hurray for Google Transparency, Now Where is Everyone Else?

Chris Calabrese,
Legislative Counsel, ACLU Washington Legislative Office
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January 23, 2013

Google released its latest transparency report today. They’ve made some interesting additions and the overall number of government requests is on the rise. But before we get to that, there is one major overriding point: good for Google and where is everybody else? The only other major company to release these types of numbers is Twitter. Where are Verizon and Facebook and Microsoft? How about AT&T, Amazon or Comcast? I could make this list endless but the major salient fact is that Google has paved the way (this is their 7th report) and there hasn’t exactly been a stampede to follow suit.

Some companies have had bits and pieces of the information dragged out of them. Major kudos to Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep Joe Barton (R-Tex.) whose request for information to cell-phone providers revealed that they receive a staggering 1.3 million requests in 2011 alone. Clearly the government is very interested in this information and clearly companies sometimes have to comply (most are lawful orders after all) but how can we have an intelligent debate about reforming privacy laws, things like location tracking and email privacy, without any sense of the scope of the problem?

There really is a corporate responsibility here. Major companies have a duty to safeguard their customers – especially if those same customers have no way of learning about the problems themselves. Of course, this should be part of legislative reform (as we’ve called for here and many other places) but it should also be incumbent on companies to act like good corporate citizens.

On to the report: Google responded to 88% of government orders in the U.S. and turned down 12%. Twelve percent is a scary number because it means Google believes the requests are illegal. This begs the question as to how many companies have the courage to deny the government’s request for user data or have a strong enough compliance department to even distinguish between a lawful and an unlawful request for user data.

Google has also done some new things. Perhaps the biggest is that it is now breaking out government requests in the U.S. by type of order. The major takeaway is that 68% of those orders are under the lowest possible standard, a subpoena, something a judge never sees. Only 22% of requests came pursuant to a judicial review based on probable cause (the constitutional standard enshrined in the Fourth Amendment). In essence, it is safe to assume police will be investigating your private electronic life long before a judge ever gets involved.

Perhaps most interesting is the overall trend line. Since the first report was issued in 2009, requests are up a staggering 136% in the U.S. There is no question that law enforcement investigations are moving online. That makes it even more important that our privacy laws not stay stuck in 1986.

So good for Google, it continues to cast a bright light on this process. I don’t know if it helps but we’ll keep praising the company for it (again and again) and hope other companies eventually follow suit.

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