Google Refuses to Remove Police-Brutality Videos

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But the company could do more to explain why it chooses to deny certain requests to remove content and yet complies with others

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Google's latest Transparency Report contains this tantalizing bit:

We received a request from a local law enforcement agency to remove YouTube videos of police brutality, which we did not remove. Separately, we received requests from a different local law enforcement agency for removal of videos allegedly defaming law enforcement officials. We did not comply with those requests, which we have categorized in this Report as defamation requests.

Good on Google. This report, reflecting the months from January to June of this year, sets an important precedent, one that is surely relevant as videos of violent police behavior from the Occupy protests grow in number and play counts. With this report, Google seems to be indicating that users who post such videos have the company's protection. In places like Egypt and Tunisia, the spread of videos portraying government brutality seems to have galvanized protesters. If Google were to take down such videos, that could have a powerful detrimental effect on the Occupy movement.

But while Google turned down the requests it alludes to, it complied with 63 percent of the 92 requests for content removal and a whopping 93 percent of the 5,950 requests for user data.

Why comply with some and not others? Google says:

There are many reasons we may not have complied. Some requests may not specific enough for us to know what the government wanted us to remove (for example, no URL is listed in the request), and others involve allegations of defamation through informal letters from government agencies rather than a court orders. We generally rely on courts to decide if a statement is defamatory according to local law.

But Google could do more to help users understand their compliance standard, and not just the reasons it does not comply, but also the reasons for when it does. Google breaks down governments' requests by product (YouTube, Blogger, Gmail, etc.) and reason (defamation, copyright infringement, violence, etc.) and the number of items the requests relate to, but it doesn't say how many of each type of request was found to be legitimate. The only numbers relating to compliance are 63 percent of total content-removal requests and 92 percent of total user-data requests, but no finer granularity is available. The report does more for making government transparent than it does more making Google itself transparent.

Google knows there is room for improvement. The Transparency Report has provided better data with each iteration and Google says, "We would like to be able to share more information, but it's not an easy matter. ... It's a difficult task to categorize and quantify these requests in a way that adds meaningful transparency, but we may do so in the future." That's something we'll keep an eye out for.

Image: AP.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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