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Censorship goes digital first? Google reports trend in government requests to take down political content

Censorship goes digital first? Google reports trend in government requests to take down political content

What do a YouTube video satirising Pakistan’s army, an article criticising the Polish Agency for Enterprise Development, and a video of a Canadian citizen peeing on his passport have in common? They were all the objects of government requests to remove content from Google sites during the second half of 2011, says Google.

The company has just released its latest round of data, documenting demands made by governments to remove content from its sites or to turn over information about its users. Google, which began publishing this data as part of its Transparency Report in 2010, expressed concern as it noted that, for the fifth six-month period in a row, it has received requests from governments to remove political content. What’s more, the demands didn’t just come from countries with a traditionally poor press freedom record, but from Western democracies too.

“Unfortunately, what we’ve seen over the past couple years has been troubling, and today is no different,” wrote Google’s Senior Policy Analyst Dorothy Chou in a blog post about the data. “It’s alarming not only because free expression is at risk, but because some of these requests come from countries you might not suspect—Western democracies not typically associated with censorship.”

The Spanish Data Protection Authority made 14 requests for content removal, asking Google to take down three blogs, three YouTube videos and a total of 270 search results linking to sites and blogs that referenced public figures and other individuals, Google said. The Guardian writes that a number of these sites were newspaper articles. Google rejected the request.

Google also writes that the requests made by US government agencies to take down content jumped by 103% between July and December 2011, compared to the previous six months. These included a request to take down a blog because of one post was alleged defamatory to a law enforcement official (Google didn’t comply, but reclassified the demand as a defamation request) and an application to remove 218 search results linking to content that the US government said was defamatory (Google agreed to take down 25% of the links).

In one of the most bizarre requests, Google received a demand from Canada’s passport office to take down a YouTube video showing a Canadian citizen urinating on his passport and then flushing it down the toilet. Google said no.

In some cases, Google agreed to block content in certain jurisdiction, rather than take it down altogether. The company says it received requests from Thailand’s Ministry of Information, Communication and Technology to take down 149 YouTube videos that were supposedly insulting to the monarchy, something which is prohibited by Thailand’s lèse-majesté law. Google writes that it agreed to block 70% of these clips in Thailand.

The data underlines that the Internet is a new battleground when it comes to free speech, and the rules have not yet been fully established. As more and more news moves online, and it becomes easier for anyone to publish, even some Western countries with a strong tradition of an independent press seem to want to keep stricter tabs on content.

However, according to The Guardian, most of the requests to take down content that Google complies with are to do with copyright infringement, rather than government agency requests. The paper writes that, according to Fred von Lohmann, Google's Senior Copyright Counsel, the company was asked to take down 3.3 million links last year. That number is expected to increase this year by a factor of four, said Lohmann.

Sources: Google Transparency Report, Google Blog (1) (2), Guardian, GigaOm


Hannah Vinter


2012-06-18 15:22

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