Each year, Google receives thousands of demands from governments around the world seeking information about its users. People who use any of the search engine giant’s free online services – such as Gmail, YouTube, Google+ or Blogger – leave digital footprints behind, and information relating to their accounts is increasingly sought out by law enforcement agencies. To raise awareness about this, Google publishes a Transparency Report every six months documenting how many requests it received for user data, and from which countries. The practice was recently emulated by Twitter.

The United States Demands User Data More Often Than Any Other Country

The most recent report, disclosing information requests fielded in the six-month period ending in June of 2012, is in keeping with an alarming trend. On the whole, requests for user data are on the rise. In the first half of 2012, a total of 20,938 inquiries flooded into Google from government entities around the world. The requests pertained to about 34,614 accounts. (To get a sense of the big picture, check out this interactive map charting data requests by country.)

As with five out of the six previous data sets, the United States Government also submitted the highest number of requests for user data worldwide – by a long shot. With 7,969 requests for user information in the first half of 2012, U.S. requests have doubled since Google started reporting these statistics three years ago. The number of requests from the United States has risen steadily with every Google Transparency data set.

Brazil Submits More Requests Than All Other Latin American Countries Combined

Another notable finding is that, out of all Latin American countries, Brazil is in a category of its own when it comes to user data requests.  From July to December 2009, Brazil submitted 3,663 requests, surpassing any other country in the world for that year. The 1,566 requests it submitted in the first half of 2012 dwarfs in comparison with the volume submitted by the U.S.—but Brazil really stands out when compared against its Latin American neighbors.

On the one hand, the population (and particularly the online population) of the U.S. is much higher than in Brazil so, per capita, the Brazilian requests might be higher. On the other hand, on account of Orkut—a social networking site operated by Google—a much higher proportion of Brazilian online activity occurs on Google. Since Orkut is popular in Brazil, the Brazilian government might submit a higher number of requests to Google than other countries in the region, where there are fewer Orkut users.

In all, the Brazilian government submitted more requests in 2012 than all other Latin American nations combined, by a lot. Brazil demanded that Google turn over information about its users about 11 times as often as Argentina, which registered the second-highest number of requests from Latin American nations. Worldwide, Brazil ranked third in terms of government requests for user data.

The findings come at a time when digital rights advocates already have concerns about protecting anonymous expression online in Brazil. In late September, the head of Google’s Brazilian operations was jailed for refusing to honor a YouTube removal request. At the same time, laws criminalizing defamation, which are aimed at protecting individuals’ reputations, pose a threat to free expression in Brazil and several other countries in Latin America.

As Frank La Rue, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, has stated, “criminalization [of defamation] can be counter-effective and the threat of harsh sanctions exert a significant chilling effect on the right to freedom of expression.” As the Committee to Protect Journalists has reported over the years, criminal defamation laws and overbroad judicial decisions affect independent journalism in many countries in Latin America.

Brazilian Legislation Threatens User Privacy

The Brazilian government requests reflected in Google’s report are also being issued at a time when law enforcement agencies are actively pushing for greater access to Internet users’ information. A provision in the new money laundering law in Brazil (Federal Law 12683/2012) allows the police and public prosecutors to demand certain user registration data from Internet providers directly, via a simple request, with no court order, in criminal cases involving money laundering:

"Article 17-B. Police authorities and public prosecutors shall have access, exclusively, to registration data of the suspect that disclose personal qualification, father and mother names and address, independently of judicial approval, kept by the Electoral Justice, by phone companies, by financial institutions, by Internet providers and by credit card companies."

Other troubling legislation is also under consideration in Brazil.

Bill 6578/2009, which regulates criminal organizations, was recently amended with language concerning data disclosure:

“Police authorities and public prosecutors shall have access to registration data of the suspect that disclose personal qualification, father and mother names and address, independently of judicial approval, kept by the Electoral Justice, by phone companies, by financial institutions, by Internet providers and by credit card companies."

The bill also makes it a crime to refuse to disclose such data, punishable by up to two years’ imprisonment. Another piece of Brazilian legislation, Bill 4666/2012, modifies article 13 of the Brazilian Criminal Procedure Code and seeks to allow the federal police to demand registration data of Internet users, removing any need for court orders or judicial oversight.

More Privacy Safeguards Needed

The explosion of our digital traces, the lower cost of storing and mining large amounts of data and the fact that we are relying more and more on third companies to store our most precious information make surveillance on a large scale more pervasive. The mere fact that Internet communications yield more detailed data should not usher in less privacy protection vis-à-vis government. On the contrary, the fact that a richer set of information is available means more privacy protection is needed, not less.

In a climate where the expansion of law enforcement powers to access users’ digital information is being sought, it comes as little surprise that government entities are also turning to Google in attempts to obtain even more user information. Google’s transparency reports shine a light on electronic surveillance practices that have dramatic implications for privacy. In democratic nations in particular, the right to privacy should be protected and governments should offer greater transparency and disclosure for why they are seeking user data.

Governments need to start thinking about how to better protect the online privacy of their citizens, not only erode them. Given the cross-border nature of many online services, a baseline of digital privacy protections at the international level is critical to ensuring respect for privacy and anonymity of all the worlds’ citizens.