If the latest numbers from Google are any measure, 2012 is not shaping up as a good year for free speech on the Internet.
For the last two or so years, following a high-profile dust-up with the government of China regarding content, the search engine giant Google unveiled its “Transparency Report.” The site compiles specific requests from governments or claimed copyright holders to remove or block content, and charts Google’s responses.
For example, from July to December 2011, the government of Brazil issued 128 court orders to remove content, which Google says it complied with 67 percent of the time. In contrast Australia only had six requests during the same period, with a reported Google compliance rate of only 17 percent.
The report has become a helpful reference for those monitoring the general tolerance of free expression around the globe, and online trends in specific countries.
This week, Google released a new trend report, and, according to Google’s Dorothy Chou, Google senior policy analyst, the news is troubling.
“When we started releasing this data in 2010, we also added annotations with some of the more interesting stories behind the numbers,” writes Ms. Chou on the company blog. “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.”
The latest report goes on to detail a noticeable increase in the number of governments requesting material be taken down or blocked not for legal reasons per se, but more for image purposes. 270 requests came from Spain regarding material that was critical of public officials, including links, blog posts and YouTube videos; a first-ever request came from Poland to remove an item critical of the Polish Agency for Enterprise Development. Google says it did not comply with any of these requests.
However, overall Google reports a 65 percent compliance rate with take-down requests, and as those requests increase — even for nonlegal reasons — so, too, do worries about a growing intolerance of free online expression.
“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,” says Ms. Chou of the data.