Google: Government take down requests on the up, even in Western democracies

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Government requests to take down online content are on the rise, even in Western democracies not usually associated with censorship.

That’s according Google’s latest Transparency Report, which disclosing data about such requests as well as traffic patterns and disruptions to Google services from different countries.

The internet giant says it has seen a definite rise in the number of requests to have political speech removed from its properties:

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.

That means that Google’s Chief Internet Evangelist Vint Cerf’s 2011 warning of an “authoritarian” trend with regards to the internet, is spreading away from emerging markets.

Given the way the Indian government behaved towards online players in the latter half of 2011, it’s unsurprising that the number of content removal requests Google received increased by 49% compared to the previous reporting period.

Authorities in the country requested that a number of social networks and other online powers, including Google and Facebook censor objectionable material. Many saw the move to censor social media as a threat to freedom of expression.

More surprising is the 103% increase in the number of requests it received from US law enforcement agencies:

We received a request from a local law enforcement agency to remove a blog because of a post that allegedly defamed a law enforcement official in a personal capacity. We did not comply with this request, which we have categorized in this Report as a defamation request.

We received a request from a local law enforcement agency to remove 1 400 YouTube videos for alleged harassment. We did not comply with this request. Separately, we received a request from a different local law enforcement agency to remove five user accounts that allegedly contained threatening and/or harassing content. We terminated four of the accounts, which resulted in the removal of approximately 300 videos, but did not remove the remaining account with 54 videos.

We received a court order to remove 218 search results that linked to allegedly defamatory websites. We removed 25% of the results cited in the request.

Spanish regulators meanwhile asked Google to remove “270 search results that linked to blogs and articles in newspapers referencing individuals and public figures, including mayors and public prosecutors”.

The company says it didn’t comply with this request.

In Germany, “a court order resulted in the removal of 898 search results that linked to forums and blogs containing statements about a government agency and one of its employees that the court determined were not credible”.

Google says it also “received a request to remove 70 YouTube videos for allegedly violating the German Children and Young Persons Act. We restricted some of the videos from view in Germany in accordance with local laws”.

Google did however comply with requests from the UK:

We received a request from the UK’s Association of Police Officers to remove five user accounts that allegedly promoted terrorism. We terminated these accounts because they violated YouTube’s Community Guidelines, and as a result approximately 640 videos were removed.

Perhaps the most bizarre request though came from Canada:

We received a request from the Passport Canada office to remove a YouTube video of a Canadian citizen urinating on his passport and flushing it down the toilet. We did not comply with this request.

Bolivia, the Czech Republic, Jordan, and Ukraine all made requests to have content removed for the first time.

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