Show data or shut down, told

Federal prosecutors in Brazil are threatening to force Google Brazil to shut down and pay fines for failing to turn over customer records as part of investigations against pedophiles.

Brazilian authorities are investigating people who might have abused Orkut, a social networking site owned by Google Inc., and have asked Google Brazil to turn over information about Orkut users.

However, Google Brazil contends that it cannot offer such data because it doesn’t have access to it. “Google Brazil does not host either the database of Orkut or information about its users,” a Google spokesperson said in a statement. Instead, Orkut user information is stored and managed by Google Inc. in the U.S.

On Monday, Google filed a petition in the Brazilian courts asking that an independent expert be appointed to verify that Google Brazil does not in fact have the information prosecutors seek. “Google Inc. is confident that the findings of the expert will convince the Brazilian prosecutor, who continues to threaten action against Google Brazil, that Google Brazil does not have the information sought,” the spokesperson said in the statement.

On Tuesday, the federal prosecution service filed a suit asking that Google Brazil be forced to close and pay a daily fine that could amount to as much as 130 million reals (US$61 million) for failing to turn over the requested information about users.

Human-rights groups and prosecutors in Brazil argue that because Google operates out of Brazil it must comply with the local laws and should be accessible through the local office. Until about 60 days ago, Google Inc. didn’t have a legal representative in Brazil who local authorities could contact with requests for information.

Also, Google Brazil has handed over user data in the past. A Brazilian socialite sued Google Brazil for hosting defamatory content about her on Orkut. She requested data about the Orkut users and Google Brazil said that despite not having access to Orkut servers, it contacted Google Inc. and got the data, including IP (Internet Protocol) addresses. Google Brazil gave the socialite the data, according to court documents. The socialite’s attorney has around 40 similar cases in process and in many of them Google Brazil asked Google Inc. for similar data and received it.

Brazilian prosecutors have also revealed that they’ve made similar requests for information to other multinationals with subsidiaries in Brazil, including Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft Corp., both of which have complied.

Orkut was the most visited Web site in Brazil in July, attracting 9.6 billion page views that month, according to IBOPE/NetRatings, a joint venture between the Brazilian Institute of Public Opinion and Statistics and NetRatings Inc. About half of the Web population in Brazil uses Orkut.

But the site’s popularity has attracted some sinister uses. It hosts more than 3,000 profiles of and 1,200 communities of pedophiles, according to Brazilian human-rights organization SaferNet. Since January, human-rights groups in Brazil have received more than 100,000 complaints about human-rights crimes on Orkut, which is also being used to sell drugs and guns.

Government access to online user data has become a sore subject in some regions of the world. When Google launched a version of its search engine that is hosted in China and complies with Chinese censorship laws, it began storing search records for the site outside of China to prevent the government from accessing the data without Google’s consent.

In Brazil, Google aims to be as cooperative in the investigation as possible while carefully balancing the interests of its users, it said.

(Robert McMillan in San Francisco contributed to this report.)

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