New data released by Google shows that US government requests to remove search results, YouTube videos and other content has increased by 103 percent in the last half year. The company also released takedown information from around the world that show countries targeting everything from social network profiles to a citizen peeing on a passport.
The information was disclosed in the latest update to the Transparency Report, Google’s ongoing project to show who is removing information from the internet and why. Google recently added a section on copyright removals and, since 2010, has been providing real time information about traffic restrictions. The latest information, released Sunday in a Google blog post, provides fresh data about takedown requests from governments.
More countries, more causes
Once again, the Google report shows that democratic countries as well as authoritarian ones are asking to remove content. Spanish regulators, for instance, asked to remove 270 search results that linked to blogs and newspaper articles about politicians and public figures. In Poland, a business development agency asked Google to remove search results that linked to criticism of the agency.
The most colorful removal request came from mild-mannered Canada. Passport Canada asked Google to remove a YouTube video showing one of its citizens urinating on a passport and flushing it down the toilet. Google refused that request and those from Poland and Spain.
As in the past, Google’s annotation list indicated several countries that asked for takedowns for the first time. These newcomers included Jordan, Bolivia and the Czech Republic.
Google breaks down the services that governments ask to remove content from on a country-by-country basis. A look across the list of countries shows that they often ask for removals from search results, YouTube and Blogger.
In addition to the US, other countries are getting more active in requesting takedowns. The number of requests from Indian authorities jumped 49 percent while a court in Brazil ordered Google to remove “four orkut profiles for content related to political campaigns” (orkut is a social network owned by Google).
Public order vs. free speech
Previous Transparency Report updates show that Google complies with the majority of the takedown requests issued by governments and courts. Many of the requests appear to be justified. This is the case when material contravenes a local law concerning public policy issues like child protection or hate speech.
On some occasions, the material will not necessarily be illegal but a violation of Google’s own policies. Following a request from a UK police association, for instance, Google deleted 640 videos that allegedly promoted terrorism on the grounds the material violated YouTube guidelines.
Google’s blog post, however, also described some government removal requests as “troubling” and “alarming” and implicitly criticized governments for targeting political speech of its users. In the bigger picture, the Google release raises questions about when legitimate law enforcement crosses the line to political censorship.
It doesn’t hurt to ask (or does it?)
Stephen Scott is an emeritus professor of constitutional law at McGill University. When contacted about the passport controversy, he wrote that neither the Canadian government nor YouTube had broken the law.
“If you can request or I can request, Her Majesty can request,” Scott noted in regard to the takedown request, adding that “You Tube need have no answer and need offer no answer to the Government of Canada. One wonders why the [government] wanted to make an issue of it.”
Scott’s observation would likely apply to the United States where, according to Google, law enforcement agencies requested to take down hundreds of YouTube videos and search results that were allegedly defamatory. Google said it refused on many of these occasions.
Is Google’s refusal to comply with some of the government requests a sign that the legal system is working? The Transparency Report suggests that companies will stand up for the rights of their users. Twitter, for instance, has repeatedly fought law enforcement requests to access its users accounts.
The problem, of course, is that not every company will stand up for its users all of the time. As citizens store more and more of their personal information with third party companies, those companies risk becoming “honey pots” to law enforcement agencies or oppressive governments.
[Image by Tomas Pan via Shutterstock]