Google reports spike in government requests for online data

Governments around the world more and more are asking Google for information, a trend the Internet giant says highlights the need for new rules governing online data.

In the first six months of 2011, government agencies in the United States, for example, made 5,950 requests for information from 11,057 accounts at Google and its video service YouTube, according to numbers released on Tuesday.

That's an average of 31 requests a day, and amounts to a 29 percent increase over the 4,601 requests of the previous six months. Google says it complied with 93 percent of the 2011 requests.

For the first time, Google also released data on the number of times foreign governments asked it to remove online content. Brazil topped the list with 224 requests, while Germany, which has strict hate-speech laws, asked Google to remove 2,405 separate items. Google complied with most of the requests from both countries.

From January to June 2011 in the United States, there were 92 requests to remove 757 items. Google says it complied with 63 percent of those inquiries.

"We believe that providing this level of detail highlights the need to modernize laws like the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which regulates government access to user information and was written 25 years ago--long before the average person had ever heard of e-mail," Google senior policy analyst Dorothy Chou wrote on a company blog.

The 25th anniversary of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act on Friday prompted a range of tech companies to call for new rules to guide how the U.S. government gains access to personal information online, and lawmakers in Congress have vowed to revise the law by the end of the year.

The latest numbers on government requests come as representatives of Google, and many other major tech companies such as Facebook, Yahoo, and Skype, meet in San Francisco for the first Silicon Valley Human Rights Conference. Attendees will examine the human-rights implications of new technologies, an issue getting renewed attention after the Arab Spring events.

At the conference's opening session on Tuesday, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Michael Posner said such events around the world should be a wake-up call for technology companies.

"Activists, journalists, and bloggers are the canaries in your coal mine," he said, noting that government efforts to restrict activity online are growing. "It's a busy intersection and a lot of people want to put up traffic lights."

Posner said technology companies should develop a range of self-regulating measures, including broad principles to guide their actions; internal policies and benchmarks of progress; and systematic collaboration with stakeholders from governments, NGOs, and academia.

Companies need to work together because no one corporation can ensure that human rights are protected online, he said.

The conference will continue on Wednesday and will include speakers from companies including Twitter and Mozilla; journalists; and activists from groups such as Human Rights Watch.