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How Google Decides: Google's Transparency Report and What It Reveals About the Company's Role in the World

Google's position in circulating information and ideas online gives it a special view into government efforts to clamp down on speech. With its Transparency Report, it tries to share what it knows.

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A protester outside of Spain's Bankia bank. Google denied 14 requests by the Spanish Data Protection Authority to remove 270 search results. (Reuters)

Every day, companies and governments around the world come to Google and ask it to remove content from its search results or its sites. Google receives these requests -- some of which are court orders -- and then it decides. Should this stay or should it go? In this process, Google has an incredible amount of power in shaping what the world can access online.

Google does not take this matter lightly. It has teams of people devoted to analyzing these requests, developing systems of evaluation, and creating its Transparency Report, the latest installment of which was just released.

In the transparency report are numbers -- lots of numbers -- and a few stories to fill out those details. There is the number of requests Google received from the United States (187 in the period from July to December of last year, up about 100 percent from the preceding six months). There is the percent of those that it complied with (42). There are the overall rates of compliance (65 percent of court orders and 47 percent for less formal requests). The stories Google tells to accompany the broad-brush numbers (found in the "annotations" section and its blog) paint a picture to accompany those numbers that Google calls "alarming" -- noting, in particular, that some of the requests for removal of political speech come from "Western democracies not typically associated with censorship." Google analyst Dorothy Chou continued in a blog post:

For example, in the second half of last year, Spanish regulators asked us to remove 270 search results that linked to blogs and articles in newspapers referencing individuals and public figures, including mayors and public prosecutors. In Poland, we received a request from a public institution to remove links to a site that criticized it. We didn't comply with either of these requests.

This is indeed alarming -- though perhaps not surprising -- and we should all be glad that Google has drawn this line. But there is more to the Transparency Report than a chance to see the efforts to censor citizens around the world; the Transparency Report also reveals to us the place of Google in our information economy, and the great power it has. Google is not a court, but it is playing the role of one, and the issues it must navigate are not easy, nor are they inconsequential. The company is dealing with thousands of requests from dozens of countries, all with different laws and attitudes about free speech. As Chou explained to me, "Laws are different around the world, and we try to balance respecting local law and limiting the amount of censorship that is happening at all times." Should it comply with Germany's laws that ban pro-Nazi speech? What about Thailand's lèse-majesté law, which bans insults to the monarchy? How does it decide?

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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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