Google's Censorship Juggle
By PAUL SONNE
Google Inc. received more than 1,000 requests from governments around the world in the second half of last year to take down items such as YouTube videos and search listings, and it complied with them more than half the time, according to information provided by the company.
Google plans to publish the data Monday in its Global Transparency Report, a biannual study the search giant started in 2010. The report makes public the number, location and type of content-removal requests Google receives from various governments.
The company said it received 461 court orders demanding the removal of 6,989 items in the second half. Google consented to 68% of those requests. The company received 546 informal requests, such as phone calls from police officials, requesting the removal of 4,925 items. It complied with 43% of them.
In total, Google received 1,007 requests and complied with roughly 54% of them. The statistics don't include countries such as China and Iran that block Google content directly without submitting removal requests to the company.
Companies such as Facebook Inc., Twitter Inc. and Google's YouTube, whose websites rely on user-generated content, have been praised as tools of free speech and political empowerment—aiding, for example, the Arab Spring uprisings that swept the Middle East last year. But the global companies operate under local laws, sometimes in jurisdictions that prevent users from saying things that would be legal to say in the U.S. and many other countries.
The result is an ethical challenge for American companies that want to do business in such lucrative international markets without being complicit in efforts to stifle free speech.
"It's really troubling because there's a lot of instances of political speech that governments are asking us to remove, which we find really alarming," said Dorothy Chou, senior policy analyst at Google. "It's a consistent problem. It's getting to be countries that we really don't expect."
She cited an example in Poland, where Google received a request from a government agency to remove a search result criticizing the agency. In Spain Google was asked on privacy grounds to remove 270 search results related to individuals and public figures. Ms. Chou said Google didn't consent to those requests.
Still, in some places, Google complies with laws that would be unthinkable in the U.S. and other countries with free-speech protections. One example is in Thailand, where Google removes YouTube videos that insult the monarchy, a crime under Thai law. Google in the second half restricted or partially restricted all 149 YouTube videos identified by Thai authorities as insulting to the monarchy.
Ms. Chou said Google must comply to continue doing business. "We operate locally there," she said. "In most of these cases, we have offices in these countries, we have employees 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."
She said Google treats government content-removal requests on a case-by-case basis but uses four broad criteria as guidance. Those include whether a request is sufficiently narrow and whether it cites an applicable local law.
The requests range from serious to more benign. Google said it removed about 640 videos from YouTube in the U.K. in the second half because the videos allegedly promoted terrorism. Google declined, however, a request from Canadian authorities to remove a YouTube video of a Canadian citizen urinating on his passport and flushing it down the toilet.
Sometimes what Google does in one country appears to contradict its actions in another. The company said it declined a request from Pakistan's Ministry of Information Technology to remove six YouTube videos that satirized the Pakistani army and senior politicians. Meamwhile, Google said, it pulled six videos for insulting modern Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, at the request of Turkish authorities.
The difference is that Pakistan doesn't have a law banning satires of the army or politicians, whereas Turkey has a statute that bans insulting Ataturk.
"All the laws are different around the world," Ms. Chou said. "What's important for us to do is really be transparent about what's going on."