Privacy and free speech advocates this week are lauding Google for the launch of a new feature listing "government requests to remove content from our services," or to "provide information about users of our services and products." The feature is shown in the form of a map, and illustrates "the number of government requests received to remove content, and the percentage of those requests complied with" on a country-by-country basis. "At a time when increasing numbers of governments are trying to regulate the free flow of information on the Internet, we hope this tool will shine some light on the scale and scope of government requests to censor information or obtain user data around the globe," Google officials noted. "We welcome external debates about these issues that we grapple with internally on a daily basis."

In addition to requests received from government agencies, the map also includes court orders for the removal of content, which often originate from private-party disputes, but does not include any information about "the volume of requests" Google receives daily from private parties who want content removed, although Google officials say they are looking into ways to provide "transparency" into those numbers as well.

"We believe that greater transparency will give citizens insight into these kinds of actions taken by their governments," reads the Google release. "We also hope this tool will be a valuable part of discussions about the appropriate scope and authority of government requests and that other companies will make similar disclosures."

The feature has its shortcomings, which Google readily acknowledged. Regarding China, for example, where Google is involved in a high-profile dispute over its service, there is a question mark on the map, because "Chinese officials consider censorship demands as state secrets," and therefore they cannot be disclosed. Brazil, India, and Germany top the list for removal requests, with the majority of the Brazilian and Indian stemming from Google's orkut social networking product, and involving "alleged impersonation or defamation." In Germany, meanwhile, Google complies with "a federal government youth protection agency" with approximately 11% of the German removal requests related to "pro-Nazi content or content advocating denial of the Holocaust," both of which are illegal under German law.

The U.S. is fourth with 123 removal requests and 3,580 "data requests" about users from July through December 2009. The United States also restricts disclosure of some user information requests, such as National Security Letters. The statistics do not say whether Google complied with the requests, but public advocates like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group that has prodded Google on its privacy and free speech policies in the past, say the feature is an important advance.

"Google's Government Requests tool is a tremendously important first step toward informing the public about the extent to which governments around the world seek information about them, and we commend Google for creating it," blogged the EFF's Kurt Opsahl. "Historically, much of this information was tightly held by governments and service providers, and the public had little ability to review government encroachment into their private spaces...As we move further into an era of cloud computing in which people entrust an ever-increasing amount of their personal, even intimate, information to corporations, other internet companies should offer improved transparency to help protect against government prying. Google's new Government Requests tool is a welcome start."