Google claims that requests by governments to remove Web content are on the rise.
“As we’ve gathered and released more data over time, it’s become increasingly clear that the scope of government attempts to censor content on Google services has grown,” Susan Infantino, legal director for Google, wrote in an April 25 posting on the Google Public Policy Blog. “In more places than ever, we’ve been asked by governments to remove political content that people post on our services.” That political content even includes blog postings critical of “government officials or their associates.”
Google received a spike in content-removal requests from Brazil, which Infantino blamed on that country’s recent municipal elections. “Nearly half of the total requests—316 to be exact—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,” she wrote. “We’re appealing many of these cases, on the basis that the content is protected by freedom of expression under the Brazilian Constitution.”
Russia was another escalating source of requests—from six in the first half of 2012 to 114 in the second, with the majority of them citing a new “blacklist” law that allows the government to remove or block Websites without any sort of trial.
Google has updated its Transparency Report “to clarify whether we removed [YouTube] videos in response to government requests for violating Community Guidelines, or whether we restricted videos from view due to local laws,” according to Infantino. The updated report also includes some tweaks to the Traffic section, including a visualization of where Google services are currently disrupted.
Google isn’t the only company releasing transparency reports these days: Microsoft recently issued a “2012 Law Enforcement Requests Report” that features all law enforcement requests and court orders related to the company’s online and cloud services, such as SkyDrive, Xbox Live, Office 365 and Messenger. “As noted in the data table (available in the PDF below) in 2012, Microsoft and Skype received a total of 75,378 law enforcement requests,” read Microsoft’s introduction to the report.
Twitter is another company offering up data on government requests. “It is vital for us (and other Internet services) to be transparent about government requests for user information and government requests to withhold content from the Internet,” Jeremy Kessel, Twitter’s manager of Legal Policy, wrote in a January 28 posting on the official Twitter Blog. “These growing inquiries can have a serious chilling effect on free expression—and real privacy implications.”
But there are limits to that transparency. Microsoft and Google, for example, only reveal some data about the National Security Letters (NSLs) they receive, presenting the information as a range rather than specific numbers. NSLs allow the FBI to obtain the name, address, length of service, and billing records of communications-service subscribers. (Under current law, the FBI reports on its use of NSLs to Congress on an annual basis.)