Google is alarmed by government requests to remove political content from search results, fearing that free expression may be at risk. These requests aren’t always from the usual suspects either; Western democracies not typically associated with censorship are participating in the requested removal of political content, says Google’s Senior Policy Analyst, Dorothy Chou.
Governments Request Removal of Almost 12,000 Items from Search Index
Every six months, Google releases information about government requests to remove content or access private user data as part of their Transparency Report. Over the weekend, data was released for the period of July to December 2011, showing a total of 467 court orders and 561 other requests (by executives, police, etc.) to remove almost 12,000 pieces of content from their search index.
In addition, governments sent over 18,000 requests for access to the personal data of 28,562 users worldwide. In some cases, such as those user data requests by the governments of Russia and Turkey, Google refused to comply with a single request. In the United States and Brazil, however, Google’s compliance with user data requests exceeded 90 percent.
The United States again led all countries in the number of user data requests, as they did in the first half of 2011. Google released the following chart illustrating user data requests and compliance by country:
Google May Choose Not to Comply with Removal Requests
Google’s is not an easy task, given the volume and nature of removal requests they receive. In some cases, they must consider local laws and may be facing down a court order, even if complying seems like participating in censorship.
In others, content violates their own guidelines and the decision to remove it makes sense. Such was the case with 640 YouTube videos they removed from that channel entirely. The UK’s Association of Police Officers requested the removal of 5 user accounts that allegedly promoted terrorism. Google found that their videos did violate YouTube’s Community Guidelines and as a result, complied with the association’s request.
“...some content removals are requested due to allegations of defamation, while others are due to allegations that the content violates local laws prohibiting hate speech or pornography,” Google explains in the Government section of their Transparency Report. “Laws surrounding these issues vary by country, and the requests reflect the legal context of a given jurisdiction. We hope this tool will be helpful in discussions about the appropriate scope and authority of government requests.”
Some requests seem to fall into grey areas, while others are outright politically motivated. “Government request data is updated in six-month increments because it’s a people-driven, manual process,” said Chou. She continued, “Unfortunately, what we’ve seen over the past couple years has been troubling, and today is no different. When we started releasing this data in 2010, we also added annotations with some of the more interesting stories behind the numbers. We noticed that government agencies from different countries would sometimes ask us to remove political content that our users had posted on our services. We hoped this was an aberration. But now we know it’s not.”
Consider some of these removal requests:
- Google received a request from the Passport Canada office to remove a YouTube video of a Canadian citizen urinating on his passport and flushing it down the toilet. They did not comply.
- The Government of Pakistan’s Ministry of Information Technology asked Google to remove six YouTube videos that satirized the Pakistan Army and senior politicians. They refused.
- The Spanish Data Protection Authority asked Google to remove 270 search results linking to blogs and websites that mentioned public figures. Their request was denied.
- A request from the Polish Agency for Enterprise Development requested the removal of a search result that criticized the agency, as well as eight more that linked to it. Google did not comply with their request.
Google’s Partial Compliance with Government Requests
Even when content doesn’t violate their own guidelines, Google may bend to the law of any given country. For example:
- In the United States, Google received a court order to remove 218 search results that linked to allegedly defamatory websites and partially complied, by removing 25 percent of the results cited in the request.
- Google received a request to remove 70 YouTube videos for violating the German Children and Young Person’s Act. Rather than removing them, Google restricted viewing in Germany.
- In Thailand, the Ministry of Information, Communication and Technology asked Google to remove 149 YouTube videos for allegedly insulting the monarchy, in violation of Thailand's lèse-majesté law. Google did not remove the videos, but instead restricted 70 percent from viewers in Thailand, in accordance with local law.
For this, the fifth period for which Google has released this data, Google said they complied with 65 percent of court orders and just 47 percent of other requests.