Google has released its biannual Global Transparency Report in which the search giant reveals takedown and user data requests from governments around the world. Notably, Western democracies made the most requests, with the US at the top of the list with 187 content removal requests. In fact, during the last six months of 2011, the US more than doubled its requests for search results, YouTube videos and content takedowns, for a total of 6192 items. Google complied with 42 percent of the US’s requests, a figure higher than that of other countries.
In those last six months of 2011, the US also made 37 percent more requests for private user data, up from from 5,950 in the same time frame of 2010. Google complied with 93 percent of requests.
Many of the other countries making numerous takedown requests are democracies: Germany asked to have 1,722 items removed; the United Kingdom, 847; Australia, 646; Brazil, 554; Spain, 307; India — which is the largest democracy in the world — 255; Turkey, 174; Canada, 172. A handfull of requests were also submitted by Pakistan, Poland, Jordan, Bolivia and Ukraine.
Deborah Chou, a Google senior policy analyst, highlighted the upsurge in requests from democracies in a blog post:
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.
This is the fifth data set that we’ve released. And just like every other time before, we’ve been asked to take down political speech. 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 US’s reasons for takedown requests varied: A local law enforcement agency asked to remove 1,400 YouTube videos for “alleged harassment”; Google did not comply with this, nor with a request from another local law enforcement agency to remove a blog post that allegedly defamed an official. But issued a court order to remove 218 search results linking to alleged defamatory websites, Google complied with about 25 percent of requests. In addition, after another local law enforcement agency requested that five user accounts that allegedly contained threatening and/or harassing content be removed, Google terminated four of the accounts and 300 videos were taken down (though 54 videos remained online).
UK police requested that Google remove five whole accounts for “allegedly promot[ing] terrorism.” Google did comply in this case and in response to most of the requests by Thai authorities to take down 149 videos insulting the monarchy, which is a crime under Thai law.
Google did not comply with Spanish officials’ request that 270 blogs and articles referring to public figures and other individuals be taken down; with a Polish public institution’s request to have a site removed that was critical of it; with Canada’s wanting to remove a video of a man urinating on his passport and flushing it down the toilet.
As CNET underscores, the figures do not reflect “censorship activity” from countries including China and Iran, which block Google.
Talking Points Memo underscored that it was “surprising” that Western democracies (the US in particular) made the most removal requests. Where there is freedom of speech, efforts to censor and regulate that speech are never too far afield.
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