But, it is interesting to look at just how much they get and are trying to get even in the absence of such control.
Google maintains a website that tracks government requests directed to Google and YouTube. There you can see how many requests have been made:
Like other technology and communications companies, we regularly receive requests from government agencies around the world to remove content from our services, or provide information about users of our services and products. The map shows the number of requests that we received between July 1, 2009 and December 31, 2009, with certain limitations.
We know these numbers are imperfect and may not provide a complete picture of these government requests. For example, a single request may ask for the removal of more than one URL or for the disclosure of information for multiple users. See the FAQ for more information.
A recent report by the US Department of Justice / Office of the Inspector General addresses how even the meager rules that exist have been bypassed with "exigent letters" that request information from communications companies; the information is deemed necessary, and promises are included in the letter to follow up with another letter or something that actually authorizes (even if unconstitutionally) what is being requested:
And, this is not just a theoretical possibility.
There has been, this month, a quiet court battle in which the government sought emails without a warrant from Yahoo.com. In the legal battle, Google came to Yahoo's assistance. From Google backs Yahoo in privacy fight with DOJ by Declan McCullagh, April 13, 2010:
Google and an alliance of privacy groups have come to Yahoo's aid by helping the Web portal fend off a broad request from the U.S. Department of Justice for e-mail messages, CNET has learned.
In a brief filed Tuesday afternoon, the coalition says a search warrant signed by a judge is necessary before the FBI or other police agencies can read the contents of Yahoo Mail messages--a position that puts those companies directly at odds with the Obama administration.
Yahoo has been quietly fighting prosecutors' requests in front of a federal judge in Colorado, with many documents filed under seal. Tuesday's brief from Google and the other groups aims to buttress Yahoo's position by saying users who store their e-mail in the cloud enjoy a reasonable expectation of privacy that is protected by the U.S. Constitution.
"Society expects and relies on the privacy of e-mail messages just as it relies on the privacy of the telephone system," the friend-of-the-court brief says. "Indeed, the largest e-mail services are popular precisely because they offer users huge amounts of computer disk space in the Internet 'cloud' within which users can warehouse their e-mails for perpetual storage."
The Department of Justice argued that an email that had been opened is not in electronic storage, and does not meet the requirements to be something that is private.
On December 3, 2009, U.S. Magistrate Judge Craig Shaffer ordered Yahoo to hand to prosecutors certain records including the contents of e-mail messages. Yahoo divulged some of the data but refused to turn over e-mail that had been previously viewed, accessed, or downloaded and was less than 181 days old.
A Yahoo representative declined to comment.
"This case is about protecting the privacy rights of all Internet users," a Google representative said in a statement provided to CNET on Tuesday. "E-mail stored in the cloud should have the same level of protection as the same information stored by a person at home."
Since then, the DOJ backed off. From DOJ abandons warrantless attempt to read Yahoo e-mail by Declan McCullagh, April 16, 2010:
The U.S. Justice Department has abruptly abandoned what had become a high-profile court fight to read Yahoo users' e-mail messages without obtaining a search warrant first.
In a two-page brief filed Friday, the Obama administration withdrew its request for warrantless access to the complete contents of the Yahoo Mail accounts under investigation. CNET was the first to report on the Denver case in an article on Tuesday.
Yahoo's efforts to fend off federal prosecutors' broad request attracted allies--in the form of Google, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Center for Democracy and Technology, and the Progress and Freedom Foundation--who argued (PDF) that Americans who keep their e-mail in the cloud enjoy a reasonable expectation of privacy that is protected by the U.S. Constitution.
Two years ago, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama had pledged that, as president, he would "strengthen privacy protections for the digital age." This dispute had the potential to test his administration's actual commitment to privacy, which recently became the subject of a legislative push supported by Silicon Valley firms and privacy advocates. The administration has taken a position at odds with that coalition in a second case in Philadelphia involving warrantless tracking of cell phones.
(Please see the original for the rest of the article and important links which I did not reproduce.)
So, change we can believe in? The only thing that has changed in government's intrusion into our privacy is the name of the guy in the White House whose administration is intruding.
Oh, and what he promised he would do back when he was campaigning is not what he is in fact doing now that he is in office... that, too, was change we could believe in.
I guess he had second thoughts about his campaign promises?
Some things never change.
George Orwell said:
Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.
And, of course, there is the adage about reconsidering one's actions, as the government did in the Yahoo case; this is called "giving something a second thought."
But what do we call it when 1) one group of Americans believes that the Republicans are protecting our country, while the Democrats are trying to destroy it, at the same time that 2) another group believes the Democrats are protecting our country, while the Republicans are trying to destroy it?
What do you call it when you realize that both groups are destroying the country, even as you look to each of them to save the country from the other?
Might that constitute "triplethink"?
And, what do you call it when government officials take an oath to uphold, protect, preserve and defend our Constitution, then do everything they can to subvert and destroy it?
What do you call it when, having been stopped from achieving this endeavor, they have second thoughts and back off, even though you know they will try again.
Might such a new attempt not be a triple thought?