US, Brazil lead Google's Top 10 censorship list; China off the chart

After government's criticized Google for disclosing too much private information, the company released country-by-country data on the number of government requests for user information and data removal.

By , Correspondent

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    In this screen grab taken Tuesday, Google's new tool to show where it's facing the most government pressure to censor material and turn over personal information about its users is shown.
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China is hardly the world’s only Internet censor.

While the Great Fire Wall is known to censor thousands of Web sites and searches on Google, many other governments have requested the California-based search giant remove content or hand over user data. According to information released April 20, which excludes China and several other countries, Brazil and the US lead the world in the number of requests for user data and for the removal of content.

In an effort to bring transparency to censorship, and apparently also to push back against critics, Google’s new interactive world map shows country-by-country data requests and removal requests received between July 1, 2009, and Dec. 31, 2009.

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“Government censorship of the web is growing rapidly: from the outright blocking and filtering of sites, to court orders limiting access to information and legislation forcing companies to self-censor content,” Chief Legal Officer David Drummond wrote on the official Google blog.

The map measures requests for removal of data such as alleged defamation, hate speech, and impersonation. It also shows Google’s compliance rate on removal requests and a breakdown of which Google-owned sites, like Blogger, Adwords, and YouTube, have contained the most removed information. In the US, for instance, Google received 123 requests to remove material from its services during the last half of 2009 and complied with 80 percent of them.

Information on China’s censorship is unavailable and regarded as a state secret and countries associated with internet censorship—such as Vietnam and Cuba—do not appear because the analysis did not track the use of filters to block online content.

“There are limits to what this data can tell us,” Google wrote in an FAQ, explaining that some requests pertain to multiple pieces of content, or multiple requests might pertain to the same piece of content. The data does not include government requests for removal of copyrighted content or for the removal of pornography, which Google says it censors on its own. The report also doesn’t indicate whether Google complied with or challenged any requests.

But it does throw a spotlight on governments when Google itself has come under fire for privacy breaches.

On April 19, Canada’s privacy commissioner sent an open letter to Google's CEO, Eric Schmidt, signed by the privacy heads of nine other countries (France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Ireland, Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain and the United Kingdom) to express their concern about privacy issues related to Google Buzz and Google Street View.

"We are increasingly concerned that, too often, the privacy rights of the world’s citizens are being forgotten as Google rolls out new technological applications," the letter states, according to a copy on the Canadian government's Web site. "We were disturbed by your recent rollout of the Google Buzz social networking application, which betrayed a disappointing disregard for fundamental privacy norms and laws. Moreover, this was not the first time you have failed to take adequate account of privacy considerations when launching new services."

The very next day, Google released data on government requests for user data and removal of content.

The Top 10

10. Argentina: The government of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner made 98 data requests during the latter half of 2009. Google complied with nearly 90 percent of the government’s 42 removal requests, most of which stemmed from court orders.

9. Australia: Officials from Down Under appeared to take positively the news that Australia made only 17 data removal requests and 155 data requests. Geordie Guy, an internet freedom activist, said the figure was smaller than expected. "These types of requests can come in a variety of formats – some of them can be information pertinent to criminal investigations, some of them might be requirements to remove information under Australia's content classification and censorship systems," he told the Australian news agency ABC News. According to a recent BBC poll, 53 percent of Australians disagree with the assertion that governments should have no role in regulating the Internet.

8. Spain: Madrid made 324 data requests, and Google complied with about half of its 32 removal requests. Spain is considering enacting filtering policies, according to a January report from the OpenNet Initiative.

7. Germany: After Brazil, the most requests to edit material came from Germany, at 188. The country also made 458 data requests. The country has laws that restrict the online display of content connected to the Nazi regime. The government has requested the removal of a number of web sites that deny the Holocaust, which is a felony under German law. The government has also censored Wikipedia.

6. Italy: Rome made 550 data requests, and Google partially or fully complied with about three-quarters of Italy’s 57 removal requests. In February, an Italian court gave guilty verdicts to three Google executives for not blocking a video that made fun of a child with Down syndrome. The ruling “sets an extremely dangerous precedent that threatens free expression and chills innovation on the global internet,” Leslie Harris, the president of the Center for Democracy and Technology, then said.

5 France: Paris made 846 data requests but fewer than 10 removal requests. President Nicolas Sarkozy has struck a hard line on Internet issues, and in February, the lower house of the French parliament approved a draft bill that would allow the state unprecedented control over the Internet, causing civil rights activists to decry increased censorship and surveillance. The new legislation would also allow police and security to spy on private computers, according to Der Spiegel.

4. India: Google received 1,061 data requests and 142 removal requests from India, whose estimated 48 million users makes up the fifth largest Internet community in the world. In India, according to the web monitor Open Net, “targeted censorship around issues of political and social conflict is a reality, particularly in areas of unrest. With the political turmoil present in the continuing dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir as well as fighting between religious groups, and issues between castes, the state takes an interest in censoring offensive material that could induce violence.”

3. United Kingdom: Gordon Brown's government leads Europe on Google’s Internet censorship list. As in the US, intelligence gathering seems the primary reason for London’s interference with Google, as the United Kingdom made 1,166 data requests – the third highest – and 59 removal requests, primarily related to YouTube. Restrictions on terrorism-related content, according to Freedom House's Internet Freedom Program, have in some instances caused the removal of information that was potentially beneficial to the public. Extensive surveillance is also a concern.

2. United States: Google complied with 80 percent of the American government’s 123 requests for data removal, which mostly focused on YouTube, The US made a whopping 3,580 data requests in the last half of 2009. While Google has in the past gone to court to prevent the US Justice Department from getting broad lists of people's search requests, the Pentagon sees user information as important in cracking down on militant groups that are increasingly using the Internet to streamline their recruiting and training.

1. Brazil: The South American industrial giant made the most requests for both user content and data removal. Brazil's 3,663 data requests and 291 removal requests (primarily associated with the social networking site Orkut) underscores Brasília's restriction of free speech. Like Germany, Brazilian legislation restricts publications considered racist (such as neo-nazi sites). The government has also banned electoral campaigns from using such tools as Orkut, YouTube, e-mail, and SMS to circulate their political messages, according to Freedom House's Internet Freedom Program.

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