Releasing the latest edition of the biennial Google Transparency Report, Google affirms, “one trend has become clear: Government surveillance is on the rise.” The report encompasses statistics of requests made to Google by governments the world over to hand over information about users and to remove content present on the multitude of Google's services. The indicting statistics show the Indian government ranks third in requesting users' data since July 2009, when Google started indexing the requests. It was also the second snoopiest government in the world in the first half of this year. The requests for the removal of content made by agencies not authorised to make them indicate mounting surreptitious censorship.

We condense the Google Transparency Report further to see what it means for India. Though some statistics date back to July 2009 or later, we have considered the consolidated reporting period from July 2010 to July 2012 due to the category-wise break down of requests provided for this period. Google has delineated the statistics in terms of 'the number of requests' made and 'the number of items' for which requests were made. Correlating the two, it is visible that the government had identified many items under each request. Also, there may be multiple requests for removing the same item. Hence, some of the data could be discrepant on account of the nature of tracking and indexing requests.

Requests for user data

Google, with its infrastructure and slew of services, stores reams of personal and private information of its users, such as location data, IP addresses, emails and contacts. Google does not disclose how it uses the data on its files. From July 2009 to June 2012, Google received 10,455 requests to hand over data from 9,333 user accounts from various government agencies in India. Only the United States and Brazil made more requests in the same duration. The Indian government sent 2,319 applications to Google for obtaining information from 3,467 accounts for the latest reporting period (January to June 2012), making it second only to the United States in prying on user data. The 3,500-odd accounts are a minuscule number compared to the number of users of Google's services in India. Nevertheless, these figures are being seen as the thin edge of the wedge. Google clarifies that this data is not comprehensive, or exhaustive, and could be over-inclusive or under-inclusive in terms of the number of user accounts. Considering that governments around the world run their own machinery to mine data transferred over the Internet, these statistics, however hazy, bespeak an Orwellian story.

Over time, Google has been receiving more surveillance requests for users' data from governments the world over, but it is complying, fully or partially, with fewer of them. Nevertheless, Google complied with enough requests from January to June 2012 to rank India tenth in terms of the percentage of compliance.

Reporting period Requests complied with fully or partially (%)
January – June 2012 64
July to December 2011 66
January to June 2011 70
July to December 2010 79

The rising number of attempts to tap into Google's pool of user data is an indication of integrated surveillance that manifests itself in other forms such as the prolonged strife between the government and Research in Motion (RIM). The smartphone manufacturer finally set up a surveillance facility in Mumbai in October 2011 to enable the government to listen in on encrypted communication between BlackBerry devices.

Requests for removal of content from Google's services

The Index on Censorship report released in November this year at the Internet Governance Forum shines a light on the scale and modes of Internet censorship employed by governments worldwide. Governments attempt to censor web content covertly through means such as private entities (ISPs, blogging websites, web hosts, etc.) and sledgehammer legislation governing copyright. Google received requests for the removal of 1,618 items from government agencies in India from July 2009 to June 2012. At first glance, the data reveals that only a fraction of the removal was ordered by the judiciary. Most requests were sent by the executive and the police, despite the latter not being authorised to ask for the removal or blocking of online content, revealing attempts at extra-legal and unconstitutional censorship.

Out of 344 requests made for removal of online content from July 2010 to July 2012, only 34 (10 percent) were ordered by the court. Requests citing impersonation (11 percent), hate speech (6 percent), national security (1 percent) and violation of copyright (1 percent) were made solely by the executive or law enforcement agencies during this period.

Pie chart

Requests sent by the Indian Government to Google across 4 reporting periods as per the Google Transparency Report

The 344 requests put together identified 1,493 items for removal, of which only 518 (34.7 percent) were ordered to be removed by the court. To break down the 1,493 items, the court had identified 24 percent of the items for removal citing privacy and security, 5 percent for defamation, and 5 percent for religious offence. It is pertinent to note that the 24 percent items categorised under 'privacy and security' translate to 360 search results that were removed between January and June 2012 in response to a single court order. Google reveals, “The search results linked to 360 web pages that contained adult videos that allegedly violated an individual's personal privacy.”

The statistics on compliance are both curious and telling. In the first reporting period (July to December 2009), the majority of the requests made were for allegedly impersonating accounts and defamatory content on the social networking website Orkut to be taken down. In the next period (January to June 2010), government requests spiked by 123 percent compared to the previous period, but the number of requests that were complied with declined to 53 percent. Again, from July to December 2011, the government's appeals for content removal went up by 49 percent, but only 29 percent were complied with. 

Reporting period Requests* complied with fully or partially (%)
January to June 2012 33
July to December 2011 29
January to June 2011 51
July to December 2010 22
January to June 2010 53
July to December 2009 77

*combined figures for judicial and executive requests

Google clarifies, “Some requests may not be specific enough for us to know what the government wanted us to remove (for example, no URL is listed in the request), and others involve allegations of defamation through informal letters from government agencies, rather than court orders. We generally rely on courts to decide if a statement is defamatory according to local law.” Google also probes the legitimacy of the documents it receives before acting on any request.


Requests for removal of content citing criticism of the government
All requests made to Google from July 2010 to July 2012 to snuff out content criticising the Indian government have been made by the executive. In terms of numbers, 18 percent of the 1,493 total items were requested to be axed by Indian government agencies for 'criticism of the government'. Globally, this category comprises only 1 percent of the items requested to be blotted out by governments during the period.

From July to December 2010, Google received four requests from the Indian government under this head for 11 items to be removed. Google reveals, “We received requests from different law enforcement agencies to remove a blog and YouTube videos that were critical of Chief Ministers and senior officials of different states. We did not remove content in response to these requests.”

From January to June 2011, the executive made six requests to remove 255 items for criticism of the government (70.8 percent of the total items requested for removal in this period). Again, Google states that most of the content was not taken down, “We received requests from state and local law enforcement agencies to remove YouTube videos that displayed protests against social leaders or used offensive language in reference to religious leaders. We declined the majority of these requests and only locally restricted videos that appeared to violate local laws prohibiting speech that could incite enmity between communities. In addition, we received a request from a local law enforcement agency to remove 236 communities and profiles from orkut that were critical of a local politician. We did not remove content in response to this request, since the content did not violate our Community Standards or local law.”

Nevertheless, Google fully or partially complied with 51 percent of all requests made by the Indian government during this period – by far, the highest compliance rate of the past four reporting periods under consideration.

Extra-legal and unconstitutional censorship
The Centre for Internet and Society (CIS) had filed a couple of applications with the DIT over website blocking under the Right To Information Act last year. An analysis of the DIT's response by Pranesh Prakash, policy director at CIS, published in Oct 2011, suggests that the “police are defeating the Constitution and the IT Act”. Prakash deduces, “Therefore it would seem that law enforcement agencies are operating outside the bounds set up under the Indian Penal Code, the Code of Criminal Procedure, as also the Information Technology Act, when they send requests for removal of content to companies like Google. While a company might comply with it because it appears to them to violate their own terms of service (which generally include a wide clause about content being in accordance with all local laws), community guidelines, etc., it would appear that it is not required under the law to do so if the order itself is not legal.

However, anecdotal evidence has it that most companies comply with such “requests” even when they are not under any legal obligation to do so.

This way the intention of Parliament in enacting section 69A of the IT Act—to regulate government censorship of the Internet and bring it within the bounds laid down in the Constitution—is defeated.”
Google's data is too 'sketchy' to be conclusive, says the government
The government is reportedly dismissive of Google's Transparency Report, calling it sketchy and inconclusive. Gulshan Rai, director of India's Cyber Emergency Response Team, has been quoted by a report published by the Economic Times as saying, “Google must “transparently” share the data pertaining to requests received by them. “It's Google data, which cannot be accessed by anybody else,” he said. “We have been speaking to Google for over a year now to streamline this process and bring in more transparency, but they never came around.”

The report elaborates, “What this could mean is that the government does not have a central repository of all requests for personal information by Indian authorities. So, by depending solely on Google, the government may be leaving itself in a position where it cannot challenge the authenticity of information in the Internet company's report.”

Discrepancies in data on censorship requests
The DIT apparently does not have a systematic log of the blocks on online content it places or requests, as also the reasons for blocking it. The result is unregulated blocking or removal of online content. Pranesh Prakash found conflicting data on censorship requests in the response to the RTI application filed by him. “The latest Google Transparency Report, released on October 25, 2011, [reporting period from January to June 2011] shows that there were 68 written requests (imaginably taking the form of forceful requests/orders) from Indian law enforcement agencies for removal of 358 items from Google's various [sic]. If you take the figures since January 2010, it adds up to over 765.

However, the official government statistics show only eight separate requests having been made to the DIT (which, under the IT Act, is the only authority that can order the blocking of online content), adding up to a total of 64 websites… Of these only 3 are for Google's services. … Quite clearly something doesn't add up. Either the Committee [the Committee for Examination of Requests] is not following the Blocking Rules or the DIT is not providing a full reply under the RTI Act.”

One of the sources of the inconsistencies is the difference in the way Google and the government compile their figures. Google factors in requests sent from every government body in the country; the DIT counts only its own. Another probable source is that the government differentiates the requests for forcible removal from those for blocking content. While the central government can block content as per section 69A of the Information Technology Act, government requests for 'removal' of online content lack a clear definition. 

A solution could be that Google provide more granular data and, say, tell us who the top three requestors are, and other corporations, especially telecom companies, provide data about censorship and surveillance. 

The 'transparency' smokescreen

The rising number of government requests is a by-product of many developments – growing Internet penetration, the increasing number of Google's services, the number of their users scaling up, even mounting cyber crime. It also means that governments are asking corporations to take down content and treating them as proxy media of surveillance and censorship. Undoubtedly, some of these attempts will have resulted in a positive outcome, but without demystifying the scope and parameters of these requests, it is difficult to fathom their impact. Government representatives from about a couple of hundred nations are meeting at the UN’s International Telecommunications Union (ITU) conference that started yesterday to discuss proposals – some of which may threaten the openness of the Internet or violate the rights of citizens – encountering vocal demands for multistakeholderism from around the world. The Google Transparency Report is an insight, however nebulous, into the goings on that may lead to the demise of the most wondrous and liberating medium of communication known to us. The rising blue streak on Google's graph plots the tightening stranglehold of government censorship and surveillance on the Internet.

Main Image Credit: Getty Images

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