As more and more people around the world rely heavily on the Web as a primary source of information, governments are taking note – and stepping up efforts to censor the Internet. From July to December 2012, Google received 2,285 government requests to remove 24,179 pieces of content—an increase of 26 percent over the 1,811 requests to remove 18,070 pieces of content that we received during the first half of 2012.
Those numbers are part of Google’s seventh and most recent transparency report, a commendable effort to tell the world what information governments around the world are requesting or, in this case, trying to delete.
It’s not the dictatorships or Islamic governments that are trying the hardest to censor information; it’s the democracies. Brazil made the most requests from any country with 697 requests, while the United States took second place, with 321 requests.
According to Google Legal Director Susan Infantino, the Brazilian municipal elections caused the spike in censorship, with half of the total requests alleging violations of that country’s electoral code, which forbids defamation against candidates.
Defamation is a very slippery sort of a word, and it’s easy enough to use it as an excuse to tamp down legitimate criticisms of public officials. In the U.S., said Infantion, “We received a request from a local government agency to remove a YouTube video that allegedly defamed a school administrator. We did not remove the video.
“We received three separate requests from local law enforcement agencies to remove three YouTube videos that allegedly defamed police officers, public prosecutors or contained information about police investigations. We did not remove the videos.”
Since 2010, more than one-third of its content removal requests were over reported defamation, by far the largest category of removal request, the company reported, while pornography, national security and copyright violation accounted for a small fraction of the take-down requests.
Twitter started reporting government takedown requests last year, but Facebook still does not.
The transparency reports also focus on government attempts to grab information on users from Google. In January, Google disclosed that government agencies in the U.S. made a record number of requests for user data in the last half of 2012 — but only 22 percent were backed up by a warrant.
San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. His work appears regularly in CIO.com and the publications of Stanford's Graduate School of Business and the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley. He welcomes your comments and suggestions.