For all his faults, Stalin was a pioneer in the field of image manipulation. Airbrushing liquidated foes from official photographs was the photoshopping of its day. And although Stalin (like modern dicatators) would have loathed the internet for its uncanny ability to let the truth slip out, he would have admired the way information can be changed in realtime and disappear instantly.
Many companies and individuals have been caught out trying to redact embarrassing material, but we can't always be sure when, how and why information is changing. When do personal and corporate interests take over, and when is the law at play? As a champion of an open internet, while at the same time a corporate citizen in hundreds of jurisdictions around the world, Google has a fine line to walk. To many, Google is the internet and they are bombarded with requests to remove unwanted material. They have no choice but to take those that come from governments and the courts very seriously.
Today Google have announced a new initiative to bring some transparency to this process. Google's Government Requests page, announced here, shows breakdowns by country of the number of requests they get to remove information by service. The statistics for Australia for the last 6 months of 2009 are interesting in particular:
155 data requests (requests for private user data for purposes of criminal investigation)
17 removal requests (52.9% of removal requests fully or partially complied with)
- 1 Blogger
- 1 Geo (except Street View)
- 1 Web Search
- 14 YouTube
Despite the important role they play, Google are a for-profit company and not a government department or some kind of public utility. This can be a cause for concern; when the corporate interest an the public interest conflict, such as in matters of privacy, we can only hope that Google's directors give the latter due consideration. We also have no explicit right to know about the inner workings of Google's information management systems. We are therefore encouraged with Google's latest move which we can only take as a good faith attempt to be a better internet citizen.
Around the world it has often been difficult to get a picture on how prevalent such requests are and the Google information will be examined with some interest. The fact that they have released these statistics voluntarily is a welcome sign and Google should be congratulated for doing so. They have raised the bar for the other companies that play such an important role in managing and safeguarding the information that makes up our digital lives.