The Google Transparency Report: Why I’m not Surprised by Increased Censorship in Democracy

Last month Google released a Transparency Report highlighting the number of requests from  governments for removal of content  and for user information, and how Google responded to those requests.  The report generated significant interest because of the great increase in censorship requests it received from democratic governments to remove political content.  Dorothy Chou, Google’s senior policy analyst, who is responsible for the report stated “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.”  Ms. Chou also highlighted that the data in the report demonstrated: “There are consistent patterns to remove political speech and in many cases this doesn’t actually fall under a specific law.” I highly suggest watching  Ms. Chou’s Speech as she fully explains how the report is organized, and why transparency and an open internet are important.

The Transparency Report is divided into three sections:  traffic of Google services around the world, removal requests from government agencies and copyright owners, and requests from government agencies and courts on users data.  Google also installed interactive tools making the report much easier to navigate.  I found the statistics highlighted by internet tech blogs to be especially interesting:

According to Techcrunch:

  • Google received 187 content removal requests from U.S. government agencies, asking for the removal of 6,192 items across the company’s product portfolio. To put this into perspective: in the first half of 2011, Google was only asked to remove 757 items in the U.S. and only received 92 removal requests. Google complied with 42% of these requests.
  • Although Google rejects many requests, it complied with roughly 65 percent of all court orders and 47 percent of informal take-down requests.
  • U.S. requests more than doubled since Google’s last transparency report period.

Techspot reported:

  • Google’s received around 1,000 removal requests from at least 45 different countries between July and December 2011.
  • Most of the requests came down to politics – for instance, when blogs or YouTube videos criticized government officials or agencies.

The increase in  democratic government requests for censorship of information does not surprise me.  Throughout history, those in power and special interests did what they must to protect those interests.   This occurs in any country, government and power structure.  Of course, it would continue on the internet in some form today.  True, Americans cherish the Bill of Rights, are protected by the 1st Amendment’s freedom of speech and the United States  is a republic with a strong democratic tradition.  However, censorship has occurred throughout American History and to this day.  In fact, Reporters Without Borders ranked the United States 47th in the world in terms of their Press Freedom.

Rather, I agree with John Battelle, who in a recent blog post stated “Given the explosion of arguably illegal or simply embarrassing information available to Google’s crawlers (cough, cough, Wikileaks), I’m rather surprised that worldwide government takedown requests haven’t grown at an exponential rate.”   To him it is more interesting that as we shift our identities to the digital sphere, information is shifting from being entrusted to government agencies to corporations:  “Prior to email, our private correspondence was secured by a government institution called the postal service. Today, we trust AOL, Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook, or Gmail with our private utterances. When documents were analog, they were protected by government laws against unreasonable search and seizure. When they live in the cloud….the ground is shifting. I could go on, but I think you get my point.”

I also agree with Mr. Battelle in applauding Google for releasing the transparency report.   Google is a powerful company operating worldwide and is by no means required  to release these reports.  Therefore, thank you Google for taking the time to compile and make the information public, for believing that “more information means more choice, more freedom and ultimately more power for the individual” and  Ms. Chou for encouraging additional companies to make their information available in the transparency report.  In conclusion, given the results of the transparency report, I found Ms. Chou’s closing remarks in her speech especially poignant:

“We need researchers to look at our data, to build on it and to find these trends and call it like it is.  In countries that traditionally cherish free expression, the risk is not that free speech disappears over night, but rather it’s that gradual erosion that we really need to watch out for.  And without more transparency, we won’t be able to realize what’s going on until it’s much too late.”


Dorotea Szkolar

I am an alumna of the iSchool MLIS program and am mainly interested in writing about technology and libraries. Contact me at or @doroteaszkolar if you would like to chat.

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