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Google Transparency Report Tracks Censorship

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Google’s new Transparency Report tool exposes government requests for data and attempts at censorship around the world

Google has launched a new set of tools to give users greater insight into government attempts to block online content, in a move that it hopes will act as a deterrent to censorship.

The new interactive Transparency Report allows users to track whether traffic disruption is due to mechanical outages or is a result of government intervention. It also provides a number of graphs showing traffic patterns over time for a given country and service, visualising disruptions in the free flow of information. Graphs are updated as data is collected.

For example, users can see that YouTube has not been available in China since March 2009, and has also been inaccessible in Iran since June 2009, following the disputed presidential election. Meanwhile, the video channel was banned in Pakistan for 10 days in May 2010, due to concerns around the “Everyone Draw Mohammad Day” competition organised by a Facebook user.

Free expression

“Free expression is one of our core values. We believe that more information means more choice, more freedom and ultimately more power for the individual,” said David Drummond, SVP of Google’s corporate development in a blog post.

“Free expression is, of course, also at the heart of Google’s business. Our products are specifically designed to help people create, communicate, share opinions and find information across the globe,” he added. “We hope this step toward greater transparency – and these tools – will help in ongoing discussions about the free flow of information.”

Google has also updated its interactive Government Requests map, launched in April, with data from the first six months of 2010. This includes the number of individual items asked to be removed, per country – as there may be several URLs per single request.

In the UK for example, the map shows that there were 1,343 requests for data between January and June 2010. There were also 48 requests for the removal of content, regarding 232 items. The majority of this content was within the web search category.

The list still does not include figures for China, which regards such information as a state secret – although China has been included in the traffic graphs. Among the other nations, the US made the most requests for data during the period, with a total of 4,287, and Brazil made the most demands for information to be removed (398).

When the Government Requests map was first launched, Drummond emphasised that the vast majority of requests made by governments were valid and that the information needed was often for legitimate criminal investigations. “However, data about these activities historically has not been broadly available. We believe that greater transparency will lead to less censorship,” he said.

Government transparency

The British government has been making concerted efforts itself in recent months to appear open and transparent, even setting up a Public Sector Transparency Board to ensure that public data is freely available.

Back in June, the Cabinet Office published the salary of every civil servant earning over £150,000 online, claiming that greater transparency would enable the public to hold politicians and public bodies to account. HM Treasury has also published the second batch of expenditure data from its COINS (Combined Online Information System) database, which contains details of public spending across Whitehall.

However, public opinion indicates that there is still significant work to be done before the government achieves its open data goal. According to a recent study by Informatica, more than two thirds of UK citizens do not believe they have sufficient access to government data about themselves, and 76 percent want more access to public sector information.

Meanwhile, Google has been having some transparency problems of its own, and was accused earlier this year of having a “disappointing disregard” for the privacy of its users’ information. The criticism follows controversies around its Street View mapping service and its Buzz social networking site.