‘Alarming’ Increase in Google Censorship Requests

by Justin Brown

The internet search engine Google has been subject to an “alarming” increase in requests to censor and block certain search results and content over the last six months of 2011, according to recent articles from the Huffington Post and The Washington Post.

From a recent Reuters article posted on the Huffington Post:

Google has received more than 1,000 requests from authorities to take down content from its search results or YouTube video in the last six months of 2011, the company said on Monday, denouncing what it said was an alarming trend.

In its twice-yearly Transparency Report, the world’s largest web search engine said the requests were aimed at having some 12,000 items overall removed, about a quarter more than during the first half of last year.

“Unfortunately, what we’ve seen over the past couple years has been troubling, and today is no different,” Dorothy Chou, the search engine’s senior policy analyst, said in a blog post. “We hoped this was an aberration. But now we know it’s not.”

Both articles state that a major reason for censorship requests was government opposition to content that criticizes politicians, governments, and public figures, or speech that is “unfavorable” to such groups.

Search engines and social-networking sites aren’t the only media to face censorship on the internet, as web comics and cartoons have also been victim to internet censorship internationally for political reasons. According to a recent CBLDF article by Mark Bousquet, the Pakistani government temporarily blocked access to Twitter because of its concordance with “an allegedly blasphemous cartoon contest being run on Facebook.”

Fortunately, governments’ internet censorship tenets have not completely stopped the flow of free online speech. According to another recent CBLDF article by Joe Izenman, similar denunciations and legal threats by India’s government didn’t stop political cartoonist Aseem Trivedi even after he “faced charges of treason for mocking the state.”

The United States is as much to blame for the increase in requests to block online content as other nations. From The Washington Post article by Hayley Tsukayama:

“When we started releasing this data in 2010, we also added annotations with some of the more interesting stories behind the numbers,” wrote Google Senior Policy Analyst Dorothy Chou in a company blog Sunday.

Chou wrote that she was alarmed by the number of requests to take down political speech, and the number of requests Google’s had from “Western democracies not typically associated with censorship.”

Case in point: the United States, which reportedly increased its requests by 103 percent in the past six months.

According to Google’s report, takedown requests from the United States included those for the termination or removal of five YouTube accounts, 1,400 YouTube videos, 218 search results and a blog that allegedly “defamed a law enforcement official in a personal capacity.”

The report indicates that Google declined to comply to take down the blog post, the videos or the majority of the search results. The company did remove four YouTube accounts, which had around 300 videos, and 25 percent of the search requests.

The involvement of democracies such as the United States in the requests has unnerved many free speech advocates. “It’s a consistent problem. It’s getting to be countries that we really don’t expect,” Chou tells Paul Sonne for an article with The Wall Street Journal.

Internet content, from web comics to search engines, is just as much free speech and expression as other media, and the upward trend in requests for internet censorship — at times because of political content — is anathema to free speech advocates. Evidence that censorship requests have increased even from the United States means that free speech advocates still have a long fight ahead of them.

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Justin Brown is a journalism graduate of the Indiana University of Pennsylvania and is currently enrolled in Point Park’s journalism and mass communications graduate program.