Google Transparency Report reveals take-down requests from governments

18 Jun 2012

The fifth update to Google’s Transparency Report reveals an increase in informal requests from governments to remove political speech from their services.

Google’s Transparency Report first saw the light of day about two years ago. This interactive report reveals just how often the search company receives government requests to hand over user information or to remove search results, blog posts or videos.

Since its launch in 2010, the Transparency Report has grown to include new features, such as graphs that show traffic patterns and disruptions to Google services from different countries, as well as a new section introduced just a few weeks ago that shows requests from copyright holders for the removal of infringing material.

“We’ve been releasing this data (…) since 2010 about when governments ask us to remove a YouTube video or a blog from our services, and also when they ask us to share information about our users in criminal cases,” said Dorothy Chou, a senior policy analyst at Google. “What we believe is that this transparency really allows us – and also users and other policy makers – to really see how the laws and policies that they are creating are actually affecting how information flows online.”

To remove or not to remove – that is the question

With the fifth update to this report, Chou is troubled by the level of requests from governments to remove political content in the most recent reporting period. “It’s alarming, not only because we feel it’s a risk of free expression, but it’s also because this isn’t a one-time problem, it’s fairly consistent, and it’s from countries that you really wouldn’t normally expect,” she said.

These include a request from the Polish Agency for Enterprise Development to remove a search result that criticised the agency as well as eight more that linked to it. Google did not comply with this request, but there are others where removal was deemed appropriate.

In one case, the Association of Police Officers in the UK requested the removal of five YouTube accounts that allegedly promoted terrorism. Google complied with this request as it was discovered that the users violated the site’s community guidelines, resulting in the removal of about 640 videos.

Informal requests increasing

Overall, Google complies with about 68pc of court-ordered requests to take down information, but the service is also seeing an increase in informal requests for take-downs. “Particularly for political speech, instead of going to the courts, we’re getting officials sort of just asking us to remove content about them or about their agencies that’s critical,” said Chou.

This is particularly notable in Spain, where Google received a request to remove 270 search results for different blogs and websites discussing various public figures. “The interesting thing about Spain is that they asked us to remove links to articles from newspapers and official gazettes like El País (Spain’s biggest daily newspaper), but those papers weren’t actually asked to remove the articles themselves,” said Chou.

“In our minds, if publication is lawful, then discovery and access is also lawful,” she added.

Call for governments’ own transparency reports

The reason Google publicises this data is to help policy makers to see the effect their laws have in the real world, and perhaps see where amendments or improvements can be made. “I think the thing that’s interesting is some laws that are written for different purposes can actually be turned around and used to remove very legitimate speech from our services, and we want users and policy makers to be able to judge and see that, using data, and then see if the laws they are creating are actually effective and relevant in the way they intended, or if they erode freedoms instead of enhance them,” said Chou.

In total, Google received more than 460 court orders to take down information and more than 546 informal requests from governments around the world. For the latest reporting period, Ireland doesn’t even register, and in the previous period accounted for less than 10 requests.

But that’s not to say Google’s report paints a picture for the entire web. “The truth is that our data set is really ad hoc,” said Chou. “It’s only what our company sees.”

Google’s statistics can’t tell what’s happening on the overall web and, while a government may send Google two requests in a reporting period, they may be sending out hundreds to other services. For this reason, Google is encouraging other companies and governments to create their own transparency reports. “We think it’s really important for companies to consider joining us in this effort and also for governments to take this into account and consider becoming more transparent themselves, especially as more and more people get their information from the internet,” said Chou.

This comes as a conference on internet freedom opens in Dublin as part of Ireland’s chairmanship of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Tonight, Google will host a Big Tent event in the Mansion House featuring Estonian president Toomas Ilves, whose country emerged from a cyberattack in 1991 determined not to shut down the internet, but to keep it open and free.

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.