Google Calls Report on Government Takedown Requests "alarming," Warns That "free expression is at risk"


What do the world's governments want from Google? Takedowns of online content criticizing governments. In a new report, the Internet search giant says it has received more than 1,000 content takedown requests from various governments across the globe during the last six months of 2011.

The document is the fifth in a series of transparency reports disclosing requests from world governments to the company. And the company says the results are worrying. "Just like every other time before," writes Google policy analyst Dorothy Chao on the company's blog, "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."

An addendum to the report documents some of the requests and removals, and a clear trend emerges: Many of the takedown requests are for content that criticizes, satirizes, or opposes the national government. Governments are explicitly targeting critical political speech on the Net.  

Canada's passport office, for instance, tried to get Google, which owns video hosting service YouTube, to remove a video of a Canadian citizen urinating on his passport and then flushing it down the toilet. Spain's Data Protection Authority sent the search giant 14 separate requests to remove more than 250 search results linking to blogs or other sites discussed public figures and other individuals, as well as an order requesting three Blogger sites and several YouTube videos be taken down. Officials in Poland asked for removal of a search result criticizing a government agency, as well as multiple inbound links.

Google didn't reply with any of these requests, nor with similar takedown requests from countries like Pakistan, which tried to get the company to delete a half dozen YouTube videos satirizing the country's army as well as unnamed prominent political figures.

"When we started releasing this data in 2010," Chao writes in her blog post, "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."

In order to comply with local law, however, the company has complied with a number of other requests. Google did agree to restrict viewing on 70 percent of the 149 YouTube videos that Thailand's government requested be taken down "for allegedly insulting the monarchy in violation of Thailand's lèse-majesté law," as well a half dozen requests from Turkey to remove videos that violated a local law regarding crimes against Atatürk. Google also took down five YouTube user accounts, and 640 videos that went with them, for violating the site's community guidelines after the UK Association of Police Officers asked for a takedown alleging that the accounts promoted terrorism.

This is just a sample from the most recent six-month reporting period. All told, Google's report counts 461 official court orders requesting takedowns on 6,989 pieces of content, as well an additional 546 unofficial takedown requests — not counting requests from China and Iran which censor content without notifying Google at all. The company agreed to 68 percent of the official orders and 46 percent of the informal requests.

Would it be better if Google resisted even more of these requests? Probably. But Google's resistance to many of the worst offenders, as well as its transparency about the quantity and nature of the orders, suggests that if the Internet is to have gatekeepers, it's better that they're in the private sector. The push and pull between censorious government and a private service provider, compromised as it may be, seems preferable to allowing governments — even those of Western democracies — to have their way with the Internet.

It's clear enough that more control is what many national governments want: A UN working group is currently working on setting rules for Internet governance and trying to keep its various proposals secret in the process. Thanks to a leaks site set up by researchers Jerry Brito and Eli Dourado at the Mercatus Center, we now have some idea of what they want — and it's not pretty. The leaked proposals show interest in  "crowding out bottom-up institutions, imposing charges for international communication, and controlling the content that consumers can access online," Dourado wrote in a recent summary. In other words, many of these national authorities seems to want the same thing from the Internet as a whole as they already want from Google: more government control and stricter public filters on free expression.