Yahoo and Google both saw a decline in demands for users' data from U.S. law enforcement authorities in the second half of last year, although the number of government information requests has grown steadily over previous years.

Despite a slight decline in U.S. requests in the second half of 2013, the overall volume of all government requests for information on Google users has surged by 120 percent since 2009, when Google began publicly reporting those numbers.

Yahoo saw a more dramatic dip in the second half of last year, but it hasn't disclosed numbers for periods before 2013.

Both companies say they are pushing back against demands and producing data in a lower percentage of cases, such as when requests are overly broad or don't meet legal standards. Yahoo also said authorities withdrew some requests after it announced in July that it would notify individuals in many cases when their records are being sought. Google has a similar policy.

Google said it received 27,477 requests from government agencies around the world in the second half of 2013, while Yahoo reported 21,425. Most of those originated in the United States and stemmed from criminal or other legal investigations, rather than national security intelligence-gathering.


Advertisement

But after recent news leaks about online surveillance by the United States and its allies, Internet companies such as Google and Yahoo have increasingly sought to reassure consumers that they carefully screen demands for user data.

"We work hard to protect your information from unclear, improper, overbroad or unlawful government data requests," Yahoo general counsel Ron Bell said in a blog post Thursday.

Google issued a similar statement, while repeating its call for reforms of government surveillance programs and other laws governing Internet communications.

Privacy advocates said the reports underscore the need for congressional reforms, both to rein in government intelligence agencies and tighten standards for law enforcement requests -- so, for example, police or prosecutors would need a judge's approval to subpoena information in more types of cases.

"The transparency reports show huge increases in surveillance demands made on companies, year after year after year," said Gregory Nojeim, senior counsel at the nonprofit Center for Democracy and Technology. He said it's not clear whether the decline in the second half of 2013 is statistically significant.

Google said it received 16,407 requests from U.S. authorities in 2012, not counting national security matters, and 21,492 last year. That includes 10,918 in the first half of 2013 and 10,574 in the second half.

Yahoo reported a more significant decline: It received 12,444 requests from U.S. authorities in the first half of 2013 -- the first year it reported totals -- and only 6,587 in the second half. The numbers for the first six months included national security requests, while the total for the second half didn't because authorities are now allowing companies to disclose those requests as separate categories, provided they use ranges such as 0 to 999.

But under the new reporting procedures, Yahoo's total for the first half of 2013 appears to include no more than 3,000 national security requests, which means it still saw a significant decline in the second half.

"We've noted that law enforcement agencies frequently choose to withdraw their request once we inform them of our user notification policy," said a Yahoo representative.

Google has long had a similar policy of notifying users, in part so they can seek their own legal assistance. Both companies say they may not provide notification in unusual circumstances or when there's imminent danger of physical harm.

Follow this reporter at Twitter.com/BrandonBailey or google.com/+BrandonBaileyOnline or on Facebook at http://on.fb.me/ULIOfb .

DATA REQUESTS
Here are some numbers from Google and Yahoo reports for the second half of 2013; these don't include national security requests:

Google:
27,477 requests from all countries, involving 42,648 user accounts
10,574 requests from U.S. authorities, involving 18,254 accounts
83 percent of U.S. requests led to the production of some data

Yahoo:
21,425 requests from 17 countries, involving 32,493 user accounts
6,587 requests from U.S. authorities, involving 11,795 user accounts
83 percent of U.S. requests led to the production of some data