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.
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?
Chou said to me that there are several important criteria for Google's decision-making. "Generally we have a few ways that we evaluate a request. The first thing we look it is, is it written down? Is it actually a written request? Is it coming from the appropriate authority? Does it cite an appropriate law that actually covers the issues being cited? And is it narrow and specific enough?" Both Germany and Thailand have in some cases satisfied all of these questions, and content has been removed from search results that appear in their country specific domains, google.de and google.co.th, though they would still appear on google.com.
Of all these factors, Chou stressed the importance of narrowness. "If we get a request, for example, that asks us to remove all search results related to 'this person' for some reason. We'll actually deny the request and we'll go back to the authority and say, you need to narrow your request, you need to give us a specific URL."
Google is trying to make these decisions responsibly, and the outcome, as detailed in the report, is reason to have confidence in Google as an arbiter of these things if, as is the case, Google is going to be the arbiter of these issues. But unlike a US Court, we don't see the transcripts of oral arguments, or the detailed reasoning of a judge. (Google has additionally sketched out its "approach to free expression and controversial content" in a blog post, but that post was vague, noting the company's general bias in favor of free expression and some exceptions, but not the basis on which it conceded to those exceptions.) The Transparency Report sheds more light on the governments Google deals with than with its own internal processes for making judgments about compliance.
Google's Transparency Report is the work of a company that is grappling with its power and trying to show its work. The Report is only two years old and with each iteration it has gotten deeper and more, well, transparent. Hopefully in the years ahead, the Report will continue to fill out, giving us an ever-fuller picture of the efforts of governments to censor citizens and the counter-efforts of Google to resist that censorship. With that, we'll rest assured that with the great power it has, Google is bearing the responsibility it must.