Governments in young democracies fret over social media


Here's a quiz: Google received more than 1,900 requests from governments worldwide to remove content from its various services last year. Which country led the planet in this dubious category, with 418 such demands?

China? Iran? Syria?

No. It was democratic, pluralistic, economically vibrant Brazil.

Many Brazilians were mortified last week when a judge detained Google's top official in the nation over a YouTube video that had stirred ire in a mayoral campaign.

But it was no aberration. The struggle over free speech is playing out most vividly today in countries that are America's friends rather than its enemies, in nations where the right of expression is embraced in concept but often rankles in practice, analysts say.

That is particularly true among a group of countries - think India, Thailand and Turkey, as well as Brazil - where fragile democratic institutions are struggling to manage the disruptions caused by increasingly pervasive technology.

"Among our friends in the international sphere . . . there's a huge diversity of opinion about free speech," said Andrew McLaughlin, a former top Google policy executive and White House technology adviser.

Authoritarian regimes have more straightforward ways to block speech. China has its "Great Firewall," overseen by armies of censors. Iran is building its own Internet. North Korea has little online access for its citizens.

Democracies, however, wrestle continuously over where to draw lines when faced with expression they find unacceptable.

When the "Innocence of Muslims" video sparked deadly riots across much of the Islamic world, India and Indonesia asked YouTube to block the video, which it did. Afghanistan barred access to YouTube entirely. A Russian court on Monday ordered the video blocked as well.

Even in the United States, the White House asked the company, which is owned by Google, to review the video to see if it warranted removal. YouTube declined but temporarily blocked access to it in Egypt and Libya, where rioting was especially severe.

Such moves underscore a central conundrum of technology and free expression: It's much easier to spread images and ideas than ever before; it also can be easier for governments to block them, especially when they are centralized on the servers of a handful of private companies.

"The larger trend is worrisome," said Harvard law professor Jonathan Zittrain. "As content is moving onto particular platforms that are owned, it becomes easier [for government officials] to make those phone calls."

The number of removal requests to Google, updated regularly on its online Transparency Report, is only a rough proxy of how aggressive governments are in seeking to block speech.

The second-largest number of requests last year, 279, was from the United States, which has an especially large population of users of Google services. Thailand, meanwhile, had just six requests, but they concerned 374 YouTube videos; Google removed them all.

Tracking the number and nature of complaints to Google offers insights into a nation's fixations.

Thailand outlaws insults to its monarchy and aggressively polices violations. Turkey worries about the reputation of its founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Turkish courts blocked YouTube between 2007 and 2010 because of what they said were videos insulting Ataturk.

India fears words or images that could spark religious violence. In 2007, mobs of Hindu nationalists ransacked cybercafes outside Mumbai after a forum on Orkut, a social-networking site owned by Google, posted derogatory comments about a political group's founder and a 17th-century warrior whom members revere. Last month, India blocked 250 sites to stop the spread of videos showing violent attacks against Muslims, out of concern they could spark reprisals.

Brazil carefully monitors racial issues and has strict electoral laws that limit criticism of candidates in the run-up to elections. There are lawsuits in at least 20 of its 26 states seeking deletion of Google content, according to news reports there. The video that drew controversy last week aired paternity claims against a mayoral candidate in Campo Grande, a state capital in Brazil's interior.

Google says it resists restrictions it regards as illegitimate but complies with lawful requests from government officials. The company appealed the ruling in the Campo Grande case but blocked the video after the court rejected the appeal and police arrested Fabio Jose Silva Coelho, the top Google official in Brazil.

"Our goal with YouTube is to offer a community that everyone can enjoy and, at the same time, is a platform for freedom of expression worldwide," Coelho said in a blog post after his brief detention. "This is a great challenge, mainly because a content acceptable in one country may be offensive - or even illegal - in others."

The company declined to comment further.

Many Brazilians criticized the government's handling of the case and what they see as elevatingpolitical candidates' rights over their constituents' speech rights.

"It's a step back in terms of freedom of expression, something like we see happening in countries like China," said Monica Rosina, a professor at Fundacao Getulio Vargas Law School. "It's bad for the Brazilian image abroad."

Yet the debate itself shows that the idea of free speech has grown deep roots in Brazil, a country that had a military dictatorship as recently as the 1980s.

It also highlights the entrenchment of another democratic ideal - separation of powers. Judges are empowered to do things in Brazil that frustrate officials in other branches of government. Nearly two-thirds of Brazil's requests to Google for content removals last year came from courts, as opposed to police or members of the executive branch.

Such tensions are familiar in democracies, young or old.

In June 2010, years into Turkey's ban on YouTube, President Abdullah Gul publicly complained, "I cannot approve of Turkey being in the category of countries that bans YouTube [and] prevents access to Google."

He didn't say it at a news conference. With YouTube blocked, he turned to another high-tech platform, typing out his call for free expression in staccato bursts - on Twitter.

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