Civil Liberties

Google Refuses to Remove Police Brutality Video


This year Google turned down a U.S. law enforcement agency's request to remove YouTube videos allegedly showing police brutality, according to the company's latest "Transparency Report." The report, which comes out twice a year, did not name the agency or identify the incident documented in the videos. Over all, Google received 92 removal requests, covering 757 items, from government officials in the United States during the first half of 2011, compared to 128 requests covering 678 items during the same period last year. Defamation is by far the main rationale for removal requests in the U.S., accounting for 80 percent of the items.

Although the Google report is "part of an effort to highlight online censorship around the world," as The Guardian puts it, international comparisons should be interpreted with caution. Google received only three official removal requests in China from January through June, for example. A government that directly controls people's access to the Internet, routinely blocking objectionable material, need not rely on the cooperation of website operators.

But looking just at liberal democracies, you can see some interesting contrasts. The United Kingdom, with one-fifth as many people as the U.S., boasts 65 removal requests, 70 percent of the U.S. total. Since Britain has plaintiff-friendly libel laws, you might think defamation would be the main rationale there as well, but instead it is "privacy and security" (accounting for 47 percent of items), followed closely by "national security" (41 percent). By contrast, "national security" was the reason for only one removal request in the U.S., covering a single YouTube video, meaning that category accounted for 0.13 percent of flagged items. Google's compliance rate was higher in the U.K. as well, 82 percent vs. 63 percent in the U.S.

Germany, with a population about one-quarter the size of ours, had one-third more removal quests—125, covering 2,405 items. As in the U.S., defamation was the main reason, accounting for 67 percent of items. The next biggest category was "hate speech," the objection to 13 percent of the items (all YouTube videos). The corresponding number for the U.S. was less than 1 percent—not surprising, since this category of speech is not proscribable under U.S. law, unlike the situation in Germany, where people can be prosecuted for displaying Nazi symbols, denying the Holocaust, "defaming" ethnic or religious groups, or inciting "hatred against parts of the population."

The transparency report also includes numbers for "user data requests," which in the U.S. totaled 5,950, covering 11,057 individuals or accounts, during the first half of the year. That's up from 4,601 requests from January through June of 2010. "The number of requests we receive for user account information as part of criminal investigations has increased year after year," Google says. "The increase isn't surprising, since each year we offer more products and services, and we have a larger number of users." Of the 26 countries covered by Google's breakdown, the U.S. has by far the highest number of user data requests, but per capita it is similar to the number in the U.K.