“It was a pleasure to burn,” starts the recently deceased science fiction writer Ray Bradbury’s novel about the dangers of censorship, Fahrenheit 451
. In his coda to the novel, Bradbury writes: “Fire-Captain Beatty… described how the books were burned first by the minorities, each ripping a page or a paragraph from the book… until the day came when the books were empty and the minds shut and the library closed forever.”
Should we have the same concern for the eventual governmental gagging of the Internet? Google’s recent Transparency Report
points to some troubling statistics about the rise of censorship requests, both from the US and worldwide. Requests for users’ private data have jumped to 37% in one year, while there were more than 1,000 attempts to censor political expression worldwide, including many requests from “Western democracies,” according to Google policy analyst Dorothy Chou on the company’s blog
We noticed that government agencies from different countries would sometimes ask us to remove political content that our users had posted on our services. We hoped this was an aberration. But now we know it’s not.
This is the fifth data set that we’ve released. And just like every other time before, we’ve been asked to take down political speech. It’s alarming not only because free expression is at risk, but because some of these requests come from countries you might not suspect—Western democracies not typically associated with censorship.
Google does not automatically respond to such requests, but it is hampered by national jurisdiction, particularly in countries where, as the Huffington Post says in its article, “Google: Censorhips Requests ‘Alarming
’”: “certain types of political speech are unlawful.” In a Wall Street Journal article, “Google’s Censorship Juggle
,” Paul Sonne notes that “in some places, Google complies with laws that would be unthinkable in the U.S. and other countries with free-speech protections.” Sonne quotes Chou as saying “We operate locally…we have offices in these countries, so we want to be able to respect local law there. That said, we try to limit the amount of censorship that is happening at all times.”
This approach leads to some contradictory actions – taking down content in some countries and not complying with similar requests in others. Thai law, for example, required the removal of any YouTube videos that insulted the monarchy, and Google took down 149 if these. Yet it refused to remove a video of a Canadian citizen flushing his passport down the toilet.
The European Union is trying to introduce “clearer guidelines,” according to the Huffington Post, and include “racist content, child abuse, and spam” in these guidelines. But until such guidelines are accepted, “Google and many other providers maintain that they cannot lawfully remove any content for which they are merely the host and not the producer.” Andy Greenberg of Forbes, in “U.S. Government Requests for Google Users’ Private Data Jump 37% in One Year
,” notes that:
The numbers may also point to similar increases in requests for other Internet companies to hand over their users’ private data; Google admirably distinguishes itself as the only major Internet company to publicly state how many times agencies have asked for its information. Whether other firms like Facebook, Microsoft, Comcast, AT&T and others have seen a parallel rise in requests can’t be determined.
The Huffington Post includes a slideshow of the 11 governments that requested the greatest number of content takedowns:
While Google does seem perturbed by the upswing, they also say that the increase “isn’t surprising, because each year we offer more products and services, and we have a larger number of users.” (CNN.com report: “Google reports ‘alarming’ rise in government censorship requests
According to Greenberg: “
Google should be applauded for taking a strong stand against censorship, and for its honest attitude toward the privacy-violating agency requests for its users’ data, an issue which remains almost entirely opaque for the rest of the Internet.” Perhaps Google’s responsible stance towards transparency means that freedom of speech – while hobbled in some countries – will continue to receive some protection.