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Tech companies cite ‘worrying’ increase in gov’t spying

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Dec. 20, 2013: Charts from Google reveal a 'worrying' increase in goverment requests to censor information, the search giant said.Google

Heavy hitters Google and Verizon are highlighting growing government efforts to collect and sift through their data, pointing to a “worrying upward trend” in Big Brother’s monitoring programs.

Google on Thursday revealed its latest “Transparency Report,” a catalogue of the various ways police and government agencies from around the world seek to snoop on and shape the data Google's servers store. The report reveals a steady increase in governments around the globe seeking information -- as well as efforts to take down criticism and politically sensitive content.

“Judges have asked us to remove information that’s critical of them, police departments want us to take down videos or blogs that shine a light on their conduct, and local institutions like town councils don’t want people to be able to find information about their decision-making processes,” wrote Susan Infantino, Google’s legal director. “These officials often cite defamation, privacy and even copyright laws in attempts to remove political speech from our services.”

Google said it received 3,846 government requests to remove 24,737 pieces of content from January to June 2013 —a 68 percent increase over the second half of 2012.

'Judges have asked us to remove information that’s critical of them, and police departments want us to take down videos or blogs that shine a light on their conduct.'

- Susan Infantino, Google’s legal director

The data reveals 2,456 search warrants seeking user data from the U.S. government in that period; Google said it turned over data 81 percent of the time.

"While the information we present in our Transparency Report is certainly not a comprehensive view of censorship online, it does demonstrate a worrying upward trend in the number of government requests, and underscores the importance of transparency around the processes governing such requests," Infantino wrote.

Verizon Communications announced new plans Thursday to publish a similar transparency report aimed at revealing the widespread requests from law enforcement for its data

“In the past year, there has been greater focus than ever on the use of legal demands by governments around the world to obtain customer data,” wrote Randal S. Milch, executive vice president at Verizon, in a statement announcing its plans. The report is due in early 2014, after the company irons out exactly what information it can publish about U.S. government requests.

“Although we have a legal obligation to provide customer information to law enforcement in response to lawful demands, we take seriously our duty to provide such information only when authorized by law.”

Tech giants including Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo, Apple and others have published similar reports in the past. Each company has taken pains to note that national security requests from the U.S. government cannot be included in their reports.

Those companies used a meeting with President Barack Obama earlier this week to express their discontent with this and other surveillance from the U.S. government, turning a meeting ostensibly about fixing Healthcare.gov into a rally against the NSA's tactics.

"We appreciated the opportunity to share directly with the president our principles on government surveillance that we released last week and we urge him to move aggressively on reform," the companies said in a statement after the meeting.

The White House said that Obama "will consider their input as well as the input of other outside stakeholders as we finalize our review."