Governments, Google and censorship

The Indian govt is far more active than the courts in requesting the removal of online content. This sensitivity to criticism needs to be addressed

The information revolution, which the internet has enabled, has made life more complicated for law-makers. Issues of copyright infringement, impersonation, defamation, sedition and freedom of speech and expression have all come under the scanner with renewed vigour as people find new and innovative ways to use the internet to express themselves, share content (legally and illegally), bully others and attract advertisers' interest in their websites. Google's Transparency Report 2012, coming from arguably the most diversified internet company, is thus an interesting compilation of all the requests for removal of content and for user information by countries and courts worldwide. An analysis of the report provides an insight into what different countries feel is worth removing from the internet, which agencies are the most active in such requests (government agencies vs courts), etc.

The salient point that emerges from the report is that, worldwide, the number of requests to remove content from Google has increased to 1,791 in the first half of 2012 from 949 the same period the previous year. In keeping with this trend, the number of requests for user data has increased to 20,938 in the first half of 2012 from 15,744 a year earlier. Now, it would be easy to instantly condemn governments and courts for this, arguing that they are increasingly playing Big Brother. But further examination of the report lays bare the fact that reality is far more nuanced. The report itself is divided between requests for removal of content and requests for user data. It is fitting that its analysis is similarly divided.

In the case of requests for removal of content, the US leads the pack with 552 total requests for removal between July 2011 to July 2012. India, in comparison, has 253 requests. However, it is interesting to note the institutions sending these requests. In the US, 31% of all the requests came from government agencies, while the rest were all through court orders. In India, only 11% of all requests for removal came from courts. This is indeed revealing. Given the distinction made between government agencies and courts, it can be assumed that the courts represent companies and individuals. Thus, in the US, it is individuals and companies who are far more active in seeking the removal of content. And the breakup of reasons is in line with this. While defamation was the most cited reason, privacy and security was the second highest, with trademark and copyright coming in third and fourth, respectively.

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