On a fairly regular basis, Google receives requests from individuals as well as from companies to remove content from the web or search listings from its index. Very often, the entity requesting a removal is a government agency. Google has received over one thousand such requests from governmental agencies from countries around the world in the second half of 2011, some of which it has complied with, some of which it has not. Requests and responses are published to Google’s Transparency Report, and make for an interesting study in online censorship. And while Google is not supreme controller of the Internet quite yet–and thus cannot remove sites from the web–it can delete search listings if it is given good enough reason to do so.
In total, Google received 1007 requests between July and December of 2011 and complied with about 54% of them. The takeaway is pretty clear: file an Internet complaint with the company, and there’s a 50-percent chance that they’ll listen to you; there is, however, a 100-percent chance that they’ll let the world know about it in the process.
In one famous instance, Google refused a request by the Passport Canada office asking for the removal of a YouTube video of a Canadian citizen urinating on his passport and flushing it down a toilet. The man was a Quebecois separatist, and Google deemed the request an attempt to censor political speech.
On the flip side, the company has complied with a request filed by the Association of Police Officers of the UK; in response to the request, Google terminated five YouTube user accounts and removed over 600 of their videos for allegedly promoting terrorism.
Sometimes, Google receives requests to remove content from the web. If the content is hosted on a site owned by Google–like YouTube, Blogger or Orkut–then the company may very well comply with the request. Beyond that, Google does not have the authority to delete websites; it can, however, restrict access to them in the country making the request. Naturally, Google fulfills only some of these–in 2011, it restricted access to content as requested by Thailand, Turkey, and India, which means users in those countries cannot access certain content, while users outside the country can.
The search giant allows and encourages free expression for its users, and it has found itself in a very influential position as governments of different countries seek to hold their people’s voices in check. The company is concerned by the huge volume of censorship requests it receives from various government bodies, and while Google respects the local laws where it operates, it limits censorship as much as it can. With transparency as one of its top priorities, the company wants to show what governments are doing in the online space and hold them accountable for the restrictions they sometimes unsuccessfully attempt to put in place. The company is thus in the position of a power broker, and the reputations of individuals, organizations and government hang in the balance.
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