Google, this week, released what it calls “Transparency Report”, a set of web pages that provide some insight into the requests that it receives from various governments. The requests are categorized into two types: requests for information about users called data requests and requests for removal of content from Google’s sites or its search called removal requests.
Why should we care ? Google says:
“Transparency is a core value at Google. As a company we feel it is our responsibility to ensure that we maximize transparency around the flow of information related to our tools and services. We believe that more information means more choice, more freedom and ultimately more power for the individual.”
Many people consider this data as providing a new insight into government censorship of the Internet.
Countries that massively censor the Internet such as Iran, China or Egypt are not listed in this report. Their level of censorship is well known via reports published by Reporters with Borders and OpenNet Initiative. OpenNet for example provides maps which show the level of censorship based on the subject: political (government dissidence), social (sexual, gambling, socially offensive etc.), conflict (wars, border disputes etc.) and internet tools (websites that provide services such as email, youtube, VoIP etc.). The US and India fare differently in different subjects. For example, India shows up as indulging in selective censorship of Internet tools and conflict, the US shows up as selectively censoring social content (child pornography, intellectual property etc.). Opennet’s main page also includes maps of censorship (a country is highlighted if it ever censored the media and is not reflective of the current state) of various social media sites such as Flickr and Facebook. For example, the report shows that Flickr is blocked by one ISP in Mexico.
It would not be a overstatement to say that Google is our window to the Internet (though Facebook is mounting a challenging attack on this status). If we can’t find a page, we can’t get to it without trying really hard. So, in countries such as the US, which do not indulge in widescale censorship of the Internet, what kind of surveillance or interference does the government indulge in and to what extent ? No information was available to answer such questions.
Consider the following two charts via Google’s new report which show the data and removal requests received from the governments of the US and India.
It not only lists the removal requests, it also lists the sites from which the removal was requested, whether the request was court-ordered or not and the percentage of such requests Google complied with.
The list shows that the US leads the list of requesters with 4287 followed by Brazil with 2435. They drill down further into the nature of requests. For example, in the last half of 2009, half of Brazil’s requests for removal of content from Orkut involved defamation and impersonation. Germany also figures high on the list, primarily due to requests to take down pro-Nazi content, extreme pornography or violence.
“At a time when increasing numbers of governments are trying to regulate the free flow of information on the Internet, we hope this tool will shine some light on the scale and scope of government requests to censor information or obtain user data around the globe – and we welcome external debates about these issues that we grapple with internally on a daily basis.”
The statistics are not fully accurate, Google says. For example, they do not include information about the sites Google itself censors, mostly related to child pornography. They don’t cover government-mandated service or content blockage, such as those mandated by China. The statistics also only cover what Google considers requests due to criminal investigations. What about requests for removal due to terrorist or national security considerations ? In an increasingly strife-ridden world, those are among the primary reasons used by the government to restrict the free flow of information.
I thought it interesting that Google chose not to put out a similar map for requests by non-governmental agencies. In the US, for example, the report does not show the amount of content requested to be removed due to copyright violations. Free flow of information is not restricted only by governments as is clear from the kinds of self-censorship that exist in the traditional media in the US (for example, post Vietnam war, no videos or images of attacks on US soldiers or civilians are shown, the news channels do not show coffins of US soldiers disembarking from a plane).
All in all, a useful step forward.