Melissa Harris' Chicago Confidential
October 19, 2012
Brian Fitzpatrick is a veteran Google Chicago engineer who majored in Latin but has become an expert in government censorship of the Internet.
Two years ago his team of five engineers, all working in Chicago, began tallying and helping publish the number and types of government requests Google receives to remove content from its products or turn over information about users.
Thanks to this team, we now know that online censorship comes from dictatorships and democracies alike.
For instance, Pakistan and Bangladesh turned off YouTube after violence spread in the Arab world, including the slaying of an American diplomat in Libya, after a video was posted on the site that insulted Muhammad. And from July to December 2011, Google received 6,321 requests for user data in criminal cases involving U.S. governmental agencies, which affected 12,243 user accounts. And 93 percent of those requests were complied with wholly or in part. (One caveat: Sometimes other governments funnel these requests through U.S. agencies.)
Last year Google denied a request from the Canadian passport office to remove a YouTube video of a Canadian urinating on his passport and flushing it down the toilet. It got another from the Polish Agency for Enterprise Development, which wanted it to remove a search result that criticized the agency and eight other results that linked to it. Google also denied that one.
"A lot of the work that the transparency team does makes even Google the company uncomfortable," Fitzpatrick, 41, said in a phone interview. "Because releasing raw data isn't something you can really craft a full story around. The raw data is going to tell its own story, and you can use it to tell different stories, depending on what you see."
On the whole, according to its most recent global transparency reporthttp://www.google.com/transparencyreport/, Google received more than 1,000 requests for content removal from its sites — from the search engine to YouTube — between July and December 2011.
The report also counted, for instance, how many times groups, such as Britain's recorded music industry, demanded Google pull copyright material from its search engine results. (In the last month, the data shows that the industry's trade group, BPI, filed complaints about more than 1 million URLs.) And it also lists the sites, such as FilesTube.com, receiving the most copyright complaints.
But Google's reporting on what Fitzpatrick calls "blunt instruments," the cutting off of access to an entire site, has become the most newsworthy. Thanks to sophisticated engineering by Fitzpatrick's team, we now know within a few minutes when Egypt brings down the Internet or when Syria inexplicably restores access to YouTube.
Still, some censorship is beyond even Google's reach. Brazil, for instance, files requests with Google to block content, whereas some countries, such as China or Iran, will block content without going through any legal channel or notifying Google.
"I never expected to see a country to shut off the Internet," Fitzpatrick said, marveling how Egypt did and Libya followed. "And then I really thought that after the Arab Spring, we wouldn't see it. We'd see them doing trickier things that weren't as visible. So then, sure enough, we're seeing Pakistan and Bangladesh blocking YouTube for a couple of weeks now."
Originally Fitzpatrick's team was tracking Web traffic interruptions on a 36-hour delay. During the Arab Spring, Google's former senior vice president of engineering, Bill Coughran, asked for the lag to be reduced to less than five hours. Two days of engineering shrunk it to less than an hour, and then Coughran said he wanted it at less than five minutes. That took more than a month, with Fitzpatrick's team ultimately hitting the two-minute mark.
"Egypt has changed our consciousness," said Matt Braithwaite, the tech lead for Google's transparency engineering team. He reports to Fitzpatrick. "We thought initially that we'd be providing a historic record, but in part what we ended up doing was reporting on breaking news."
Google's efforts have since prompted other companies, such as Twitter and Dropbox, to release their own transparency reports.
"Every six months, the Google transparency report comes out, and almost everybody writes a story that goes like this: ‘Google gives up data to governments, and this is bad,'" said Eva Galperin of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based civil liberties group. "And usually the story they don't write is that nearly every company with data about users gives up data to governments. We don't have any data about what they're giving up and what circumstances they're giving it up under. Not only is what Google doing better than nothing; almost everyone else is doing nothing."
Facebook, Galperin noted, doesn't publish such reports.
Fitzpatrick gives full credit to Google's legal and policy teams for getting the ball rolling. In 2010, when they called for engineers to volunteer for the project, Braithwaite signed up.
Over a Chinese dinner in San Francisco, Braithwaite told Fitzpatrick about the transparency effort.
"It hit me like a brick in the head," Fitzpatrick said. "I thought it was worthwhile to build a full-time team around it and expand it."
Fitzpatrick, who started Google Chicago's engineering office in 2005, got the OK from headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., to pull a team together here.
The three civil liberties activists interviewed for this article praised the transparency effort but are seeking more.
"What kinds of data is Google willing to give up as part of a government request?" Galperin said. Are they turning over email correspondence or IP addresses, which are something like a computer's home address, she wondered.
Kevin Bankston, senior counsel of the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington, D.C., wants to know how often civil litigants, such as divorcing couples or businesses engaged in legal disputes, seek data from Google.
And Rebecca MacKinnon, a former CNN journalist and now a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, wants to know what Google takes down on its own — without a government request. MacKinnon cited an example of hidden-camera videos taken by an Egyptian activist that captured police torture. YouTube initially took down the videos because they violated its community guidelines about violence. They later were restored.
"Precisely because Google has tremendous power, they have to be transparent with the public about what we're not seeing," MacKinnon said.
Fitzpatrick said the team intends to build more products to tally and publish data. Then Braithwaite chimed in, "We also take suggestions."
Melissa Harris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 312-222-4582. Twitter @chiconfidential or Facebook.com/chiconfidential.
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