Google on Its Own Transparency Report: This Is Not Good Enough

In the latest installment of its semi-annual report, Google puts an emphasis on the project's limits.


Ever since Google began releasing its semi-annual Transparency Report in 2010, the company has announced each iteration with statements like:

  • "When Google’s services are blocked or filtered, we can’t serve our users effectively. That’s why we act every day to maximize free expression and access to information. To promote transparency around this flow of information, we’ve built an interactive online Transparency Report with tools that allow people to see where governments are demanding that we remove content and where Google services are being blocked. We believe that this kind of transparency can be a deterrent to censorship." (Sept. 2010)
  • "We think it’s important to shine a light on how government actions could affect our users. When we first launched the Transparency Report in early 2010, there wasn’t much data out there about how governments sometimes hamper the free flow of information on the web. So we took our first step toward greater transparency by disclosing the number of government requests we received." (Nov. 2012)
  • "How do governments affect access to information on the Internet? To help shed some light on that very question, last year we launched an online, interactive Transparency Report. All too often, policy that affects how information flows on the Internet is created in the absence of empirical data. But by showing traffic patterns and disruptions to our services, and by sharing how many government requests for content removal and user data we receive from around the world, we hope to offer up some metrics to contribute to a public conversation about the laws that influence how people communicate online." (Oct. 2011)

This was a company proud of its Report. Though Google would often note that the report was not complete picture of how governments accessed user data online, it couched that admission in the context that the report was growing and improving with each release. And of course, the releases would often note, other companies could do more too, and would be wise to follow Google's lead.

Today brings the release of the first Transparency Report since the Snowden revelations about widespread government surveillance, and Google's tone has changed dramatically. In contrast with the warm glow of corporate benevolence Google has tended to exude in these moments, today's Google Blog post announcing the new Report is a touch surly, emphasizing not Google's good grace in providing the report in the first place, but, instead, its limited nature.

This is not how the usual Google fanfare begins (emphasis added):

In a year in which government surveillance has dominated the headlines, today we’re updating our Transparency Report for the eighth time. Since we began sharing these figures with you in 2010, requests from governments for user information have increased by more than 100 percent. This comes as usage of our services continues to grow, but also as more governments have made requests than ever before. And these numbers only include the requests we’re allowed to publish.

And then, following that paragraph, an image:


Yes. That's right. Three pretty boxes of Googlified data, and then this mess:

This is an unhappy Internet giant.

Google's Richard Salgado writes:

We want to go even further. We believe it’s your right to know what kinds of requests and how many each government is making of us and other companies. However, the U.S. Department of Justice contends that U.S. law does not allow us to share information about some national security requests that we might receive. Specifically, the U.S. government argues that we cannot share information about the requests we receive (if any) under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. But you deserve to know. 

This is a departure for Google. Instead of highlighting the report's strengths, it is using this release to emphasize what it cannot say, but wants to.

That said, the report does continue to grow and improve, and this iteration is no different. Google now includes data on more of the types of requests it receives from the U.S. government related to criminal proceedings, including the tantalizing revelation that Google received and complied with seven wiretap requests. Unfortunately, because of the Report's limitations, we are left with just that number, no context, no indication of what the cases were, nor what those wiretaps provided.

Google, it says, has been pressing the U.S. government for more leeway about what it can tell Internet users about its relationship with America's national security apparatus. Unfortunately for users, that means persisting in a state of poor and often conflicting information about the security and use of the bytes and bytes of data we all create every single day.