Google Sees More Government Requests to Remove Content 'Than Ever Before'

Two countries -- Brazil and Russia -- stand out for their increased policing of content online.
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In the latest edition of its Transparency Report, released this morning, Google revealed that the final six months of 2012 saw an increase in government requests to remove content -- often YouTube videos. All told, Google received 2,285 such requests (compared with 1,811 during the first half of 2012) that named a total of 24,179 pieces of content for removal (compared with 18,070 in the preceding period).

The Democracy Report

Partly, the rise in content-removal requests stems from the simple fact that the amount of content online is rising steadily, and some percentage of that will always be defamatory. As the quantity of content rises, so will requests for removal. Additionally, many governments may be growing "savvier" -- Google has streamlined the process for making these requests, and the increased ease with which they can be made may inviting governments to make requests, even those that aren't all that justified, and let Google do the figuring out.

That said, Google did single out two countries -- Brazil and Russia -- for instigating "sharp" increases on their own. In the preceding six months, Google received 191 requests to remove content from Brazil. From July to December, that number lept to 697 -- 640 of which were court orders, a rate of 3.5 court orders per day. The reason? Google notes that the country held municipal elections last fall and nearly half of the requests "called for the removal of 756 pieces of content related to alleged violations of the Brazilian Electoral Code, which forbids defamation and commentary that offends candidates." Google says it is appealing many of these 316 requests, contending that "the content is protected by freedom of expression under the Brazilian Constitution."

In Russia, Google points to a new law, the Federal Law on Information, Information Technologies and Information Protection, which ostensibly restricts content concerning suicide and drugs, as responsible for the increase from just six requests in the January-June period to 114 in the latter half of the year, 107 of which cited the new law. Google says it responded by blocking access to the content for people in Russia in a third of the cases (but leaving the content up for the global audience) and removed it entirely for half. Presumably the remaining one-sixth of the requests are being appealed, but Google does not say.

The number of content-removal requests from various American government agencies and courts has steadily increased in recent years, totaling 321 (second only to Brazil) for the most recent period.

This was also the period during which Google made the unprecedented move of blocking access to the "Innocence of Muslims" video in several countries such as Egypt and Libya, even though the video did not violate YouTube's "Community Guidelines."

Google's Transparency Report continues to improve with each iteration. In the version released today, the company has for the first time specified in general terms why requests for removal were removed, whether for violation of Community Guidelines or local laws. It has also updated the Traffic section of the report, adding a map feature that allows you to see any disruptions to Google services since 2009 broken out geographically.

"The information we share on the Transparency Report is just a sliver of what happens on the Internet," Google's legal director, Susan Infantino, wrote in a blog post. "But as we disclose more data and continue to expand it over time, we hope it helps draw attention to the laws around the world that govern the free flow of information online. "

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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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