Google Sees Surge In Censorship Demands

Silencing speech isn't just for dictators; democracies are trying it also. U.S. authorities, for example, asked Google to remove information 6,192 times in the second half of 2011.
Google warns that government attempts to remove online information are increasing and that some of the governments making censorship requests are Western democracies.

U.S. authorities, for example, made 6,192 requests seeking the removal of information from Google during the second half of 2011, the company said in a report published Sunday. In the first half of 2011, the U.S. government made 757 such requests.

In the U.K., authorities made 847 information removal requests during the second half of 2011, up from 333 during the first half of that year.

Google began documenting government data requests in September 2010, when it first published its Transparency Report. Prior to that, the company published data about service accessibility in China, but not elsewhere.

[ Learn more about Google's Transparency Report. Read Google Seeks Allies Against Censorship. ]

Google's mission to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible both pleases and vexes governments around the world. On the one hand, governments find Google's store of data irresistible as a form of surveillance; on the other hand, they resent the role Google plays in facilitating the publication of data without prior approval and making such data available via search query.

Google made its name as a champion of personal privacy in 2005 when, unlike AOL, Microsoft, or Yahoo, it resisted a Department of Justice subpoena for its store of Internet search data. The DOJ sought the information to help it uphold the 1998 Child Online Protection Act (COPA), which was ultimately ruled unconstitutional.

Since then, the pressure on Google and other companies with stores of online data has only increased. Over the weekend, Google published information about government data requests from the July to December 2011 period.

In a blog post, Google senior policy analyst Dorothy Chou characterizes requests to limit political speech as troubling. "We noticed that government agencies from different countries would sometimes ask us to remove political content that our users had posted on our services," said Chou. "We hoped this was an aberration. But now we know it's not."

According to Chou, some of these information removal requests come not from authoritarian regimes but from Western democracies. She points to Spanish regulators, who asked Google to remove 270 search results linking to blog posts and newspaper articles referencing public figures, specifically government officials. She also notes that an unnamed public institution in Poland asked Google to remove links to a website that criticized it.

Google did not comply with either request, she said.

In an effort to help people understand the government data requests it receives, Google continues to add additional details to its Transparency Report. Several weeks ago, Google added a section covering takedown requests for search results from copyright holders.

With its fifth biennial Transparency Report update, Google has added an aggregate view, to make it easier to understand how the company has responded to court orders, as opposed to other requests from other government agencies. Google says that during the last six months of 2011, it complied with 65% of court orders, compared to 47% of more informal requests.

More than 900 IT and security professionals responded to InformationWeek’s 2012 Strategic Security Survey. Our results cover a variety of areas critical to information risk management, including cloud, mobility, and software development. Download the 2012 Strategic Security report now. (Free registration required.)