Google Reveals its Government Censorship Map

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Did you know that between January and June 2010, the US government made 4,287 requests for data disclosure from Google? During the same period, it asked for 678 items to be removed. Similarly, Brazil made 2,435 data requests and asked for 19,806 items to be removed.

The “Big Brother” statistics are available from Google’s Transparency Report. The figures have been collated from the search engine and other services such as YouTube. Google states:

Like other technology and communications companies, we regularly receive requests from government agencies around the world to remove content from our services. We also receive requests for information about the users of our services and products from government agencies like local and federal police. The map shows the number of requests that we received in six-month blocks with certain limitations.

Google admit the figures are not wholly accurate. Fewer than 10 requests are not shown and 2 requests for the same item could be counted twice. You can click any map marker for details such as how many requests Google complied with.

The figures include removal demands for alleged defamation, hate speech, and impersonation. However, the numbers do not include:

  • Illegal pornography — Google identifies and removes it when they become aware of the issue. This occurs regardless of government involvement.
  • Removal of copyrighted content — this tends to originate from the private sector and government demands are negligible.
  • Numbers for China — the Chinese government consider censorship requests to be state secrets in themselves.

You should note that demands are relatively higher in Brazil and India owing to the popularity of Orkut, Google’s own social networking site. Germany also bans Nazi memorabilia and some content while Korea requests removal of RRN social security numbers.

Criminal investigations account for many of the requests. These have increased annually as Google’s products, services and user base has grown.

There are few details about the other demands, but it’s clear Google isn’t afraid to report government censorship:

At a time when increasing numbers of governments are trying to regulate the free flow of information on the Internet, we hope this tool will shine some light on the scale and scope of government requests to censor information or obtain user data around the globe — and we welcome external debates about these issues that we grapple with internally on a daily basis.

The Transparency Report raises an interesting debate. On the plus side, the web is enabling a global democracy where governments are increasingly unable to hide information from the people they serve. On the flip side, is this a sign that Google has become too powerful? Can it threaten regulatory authorities, rise above the laws of the countries it operates in and enforce it’s own moral charter?

Craig BucklerCraig Buckler
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Craig is a freelance UK web consultant who built his first page for IE2.0 in 1995. Since that time he's been advocating standards, accessibility, and best-practice HTML5 techniques. He's created enterprise specifications, websites and online applications for companies and organisations including the UK Parliament, the European Parliament, the Department of Energy & Climate Change, Microsoft, and more. He's written more than 1,000 articles for SitePoint and you can find him @craigbuckler.

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