Google's report on government censorship, take-down, and user data requests has received quite a bit of attention today, primarily focused on the uptick in US federal requests to the search giant. But are we blowing it out of proportion? Billions of people use Google and hundreds of millions create or post content on its services. As usage of Google's services grows, so too we should expect take-down and data requests to increase, right?
That's true to some extent. The more content there is, the more any particular government will have to sort through and find things that might be objectionable. The uptick we're seeing is, to some extent, an artifact of increased volume rather than increased government scrutiny. That being said, this isn't going to be my usual, "privacy is dead, whatever, stop posting things online you don't want read" mantra. In fact, this is a big deal. I can live with Google using my information to make more money. They provide lots of awesome services that I use every day for free (at least in terms of cash that leaves my bank account) - there needs to be some quid pro quo in all of that.
The real problem is that Google doesn't really have much choice but to comply with US government requests for user data. Government requests to remove copyrighted materials? Fine. Makes some sense, even if our copyright system is badly antiquated and in need of a 21st century makeover. But user data? Google complied, at least in part, with 92% of the government's requests for information on its users. And Google probably knows me better than my wife. And when those requests were accompanied by a court order, the company, by US law, had little recourse.
This is where things get scary. And this is also why, all along, I've said that Google isn't the entity of which we need to be afraid. Sure, they have lots of data on us, but their financial solvency relies upon their judicious use of those data. Our data are their advertising bread and butter. Screw up the pipeline of data and our willingness to turn to Google for countless search queries, YouTube videos, phone operating systems, etc., and they've screwed themselves out of a business model.
But they're a US company with lots of servers on US soil. So they're subject to to increasingly Orwellian laws that don't sit will with US citizens, let alone our European counterparts. US government intrusions into our data are a direct threat to Google's business, both overseas and domestically. I've been on many webcasts covering Google with Canadian and European attendees who won't use Google Apps because of the Patriot Act and related laws. I can't actually say that I blame them.
Sure, we need to prevent terrorism and keep our citizens safe. But if anything will discourage me from Googling, it won't be Google's advertising networks and monetization of my data. It will be my government's ability to get these data with the barest pretense of probable cause.