Google Reports 'Alarming' Rate of Government Censorship

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Generally when Google shows up in the news regarding information being exposed on the Web it’s about privacy issues and concerns that too much data is being stored or distributed by the Internet giant. It’s also possible, though, that in some cases Google may not be displaying enough information.

About two years ago Google started posting data online in its Transparency Report. The data includes real-time traffic information, as well as requests from individuals, companies, or governments to surrender data, and requests to have sites or information removed from Google search or from YouTube.

Governments should be very careful about engaging in censorship.
Requests from users to remove sites is monitored in real-time, but the data for government takedown requests is only updated every six months. While we might expect certain strict regimes like China or Thailand to police the Internet in this way, Google says it’s not necessarily the case.

A post on Google’s Public Policy Blog explains the most recent data. Google notes that the rate of such requests continues to climb, and warns of the negative impact of the trend. “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.”

When it comes to court orders demanding information Brazil leads the way, followed by the United States, and Germany. Broken down by other government requests (not court orders), India and South Korea come out on top, but the Unites States, Brazil, and Germany are right behind them.

The Google blog post claims that regulators in Spain asked that 270 search results linked to articles or posts about public figures be removed. It also says, “In Poland, we received a request from a public institution to remove links to a site that criticized it.”

Google doesn’t comply with every request that comes in, and it didn’t comply with the requests from Spain or Poland. Nevertheless, there are hundreds of such claims that Google has complied with.

Privacy online is certainly a big deal. But, in my opinion censorship is a bigger issue. Censorship is a slippery--very slippery--slope.

It’s easy to justify when you agree that certain data is objectionable or subversive, but it’s tricky to draw the line in the sand. The biggest problem with defining what’s legitimate free speech, and what should be blocked or taken down is that it’s a subjective decision that not all will agree with.

Most people find the Ku Klux Klan or NAMBLA to be morally offensive, and would gladly censor them. But, if you allow those organizations to be censored, you run the risk that someone else will find your beliefs or organizations unworthy and you’ll end up on the wrong side of the line in the sand.

Governments--particularly Western democracies of elected officials serving the people they represent--should seriously consider whether it’s more damaging to allow subversive or objectionable material to exist on the Web, or to engage in censorship.

Should governments be sending takedown requests to Google at all? Let me know what you think in the comments.

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