Google reveals 'alarming' increase in government requests to censor content

 

US authorities are leading the charge as governments around the world pepper Google with more demands to remove online content and turn over information about people using its Internet search engine, YouTube video site and other services.

"It's alarming not only because free expression is at risk, but because some of these requests come from countries you might not suspect — Western democracies not typically associated with censorship," Dorothy Chou, Google's senior policy analyst, wrote in a Sunday blog post.

Google Inc. provided a glimpse at the onslaught of government requests in a summary posted on its website late on Sunday. The breakdown covers the final six months of last year. It's the fifth time that Google has released a six-month snapshot of government requests since the company engaged in a high-profile battle over online censorship with China's communist leadership in 2010.

The country-by-country capsule illustrates the pressure Google faces as it tries to obey the disparate laws in various countries while trying to uphold its commitment to free expression and protect the sanctity its more than 1 billion users' personal information.

Governments zero in on Google because its services have become staples of our digital-driven lives. Besides running the Internet's most dominant search engine, Google owns the most watched video site in YouTube, operates widely used blogging and email services and distributes Android, the top operating system on mobile phones. During the past year, Google has focused on expanding Plus, a social networking service, that boasts more than 170 million users.

Many of the requests are legitimate attempts to enforce laws governing hot-button issues ranging from personal privacy to hate speech.

But Google says it increasingly fields requests from government agencies trying to use their power to suppress political opinions and other material they don't like.

That comment may have been aimed at the US, where police prosecutors, courts and other government agencies submitted 187 requests to remove content from July through December last year, more than doubling from 92 requests from January through June.

Only Brazil's government agencies submitted more content removal requests with a total of 194 during the final half of last year. But that figure was down from 224 requests in Brazil during the first half of the year.

Brazil's requests covered a more narrow range of content than the US demands. The submissions from Brazil covered 554 different pieces of content while the US requests sought to censor nearly 6,200 items.

One US request from a local law enforcement agency asked Google to remove 1,400 YouTube videos for alleged harassment. Without identifying the requesting agency or the targeted videos, Google said it rejected the demand.

Google wound up at least partially complying with 42 percent of the content removal requests in the US and 54 percent in the Brazil.

Other governments frequently reaching out to Google included Germany (103 content-removal requests, down 18 percent from the previous six-month period), and India (101 requests, a 49 percent increase).

At least four countries — Bolivia, the Czech Republic, Jordan and Ukraine — asked Google to remove content for the first time during the final six months of last year.

Governments also are leaning Google more frequently for information about people suspected of breaking the law or engaging in other mischief.

The US government filed 6,321 requests with Google for user data during the final six months of the year. That was far more than any other country, according to Google, and a 6 percent increase from the previous six months. Google complied with 93 percent of the US requests for user data, encompassing more than 12,200 accounts.

AP

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