Google under increasing political pressure

June 18, 2012
3 mins read

MOST OF US are well acquainted with the great firewall of China, and the evils of Pinochet’s dictatorship, Nazi Germany, not to mention the atrocities committed in Eastern Europe during the cold war. After all, it wasn’t all that long ago that residents of less democratic nations would “disappear” if they criticised or even questioned their government. Thank goodness we live in a democracy where we have the freedom to say what we think without having to look over our shoulder and can vote a government in (or out). But is our democracy really all that robust? How real are our freedoms? If a report from Internet search giant, Google, is anything to go by, there’s a good chance that you may be shocked.

It turns out that Google has complied with 47% of requests for content removal and 65% of court orders from governments as they attempted to censor the internet.

As sensationalist as these figures may sound, they’re real, and are published in Google’s bi-annual transparency report. That Google says there’s been a big increase in requests to remove content by supposedly democratic Governments over the last six months should also be a concern, especially when many of these requests come from western democracies, most of whom you’d not usually associate with information censorship. The list of governments reads like a virtual United Nations. Thankfully, New Zealand is not listed amongst governments submitting court orders.

The list is long, however (and according to Google, growing). Spanish regulators asked Google to remove 270 links to blogs and newspaper articles critical of public figures. Google didn’t comply.

The Polish Government asked Google to remove an article critical of a Polish agency for enterprise development and eight other results that linked to the article. Thankfully, Google again did not comply. Even more bizarrely, Google was asked by Canadian officials to remove a YouTube video of a Canadian taking a leak on his passport and attempting to flush it down the loo. Yup, you guessed it, Google refused to co-operate (hopefully that mad Canadian was also charged a fortune by his or her plumber who would have had the gruesome chore of fishing it out of the plumbing).

It’s not just European governments or the Canadians alarmed at the weak bladders of their citizens, either. Thai authorities have asked Google to remove 149 YouTube videos for allegedly insulting the monarchy (which is a violation of Thai law). This time Google complied with 70 percent of the requests. Pakistan also asked Google to remove six YouTube videos that were sending up its army and senior politicians. Google refused.

Some requests were also more legitimate than others. The Brits lodged a request, with the UK police asking Google to remove five YouTube accounts for allegedly promoting terrorism. Google agreed. In the US most requests related to alleged harassment of people on YouTube. The authorities asked for 187 pieces to be removed. Google complied with 42 percent of them.

Sadly, political pressure appears to be mounting on the Internet search giant, and over the six months covered by the latest report, Google has complied with an average of 65 percent of court orders, and 47 percent of less formal requests. So could it be that the western style democracies we’ve all been taught are the fairest and most reasonable form of government are actually not so democratic? This in turn begs the question of “how free are we really?” This is a reasonable question, yet it also isn’t hard to see why governments are becoming increasingly concerned.

The Internet provides people with an unprecedented degree of power – a digital virtual soap box from which we can preach whatever messages we choose to a potential audience numbering in the millions.

Given the horrors of 9/11 and the numerous deaths and trauma caused by cyber bullying, it’s reasonable to assume that any government would want to act in the interests of its citizens. The flipside of this debate is that in an ideal world, informed and reasonable debate should also drive reforms that ultimately benefit society.

That such debate could be being quashed might also mark the beginning of an insidious erosion of our online freedoms, and as such the question needs to be asked, “what is the possible effect of this on our real-life existence?” At the end of the day, there probably isn’t a straightforward answer. This said, however, knowledge is power, and we luckily have access to the biggest treasure-trove of human knowledge in existence at our fingertips – the internet (in cyberspace no one can hear you cackle at the latest cat meme). Thankfully, the average Kiwi netizen is also a fairly well informed individual, who isn’t afraid to stand up for their rights (as was the case with the recent three strikes copyright law). Long may that last. Here’s hoping Google keeps publishing its transparency report so that we can all stay informed.

So what do you think? Were the tin foil undie wearers right all along? Is Google being overtly paranoid? Is there a sensible middle ground? Share your thoughts right here… PAT PILCHER

Pat has been talking about tech on TV, radio and print for over 20 years, having served time as a TV tech guy and currently penning reviews for Witchdoctor. He loves nothing more than rolling his sleeves up and playing with shiny gadgets.

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