Google: Censorship is Alive and Well, and Thriving in Russia and Turkey

Photo credit: Northfoto/
Photo credit: Northfoto/

In total, Google received 3,846 requests from governments worldwide to remove 24,737 pieces of content. The company only accepted less than one-third of those requests, however. 

“Over the past four years, one worrying trend has remained consistent: governments continue to ask us to remove political content,” said Susan Infantino, Google’s legal director, in a blog post. “Judges have asked us to remove information that’s critical of them, police departments want us to take down videos or blogs that shine a light on their conduct, and local institutions like town councils don’t want people to be able to find information about their decision-making processes.”

Naturally, officials often cite defamation, privacy and copyright laws, but Infantino characterizes it as being more of an attempt “to remove political speech from our services.”

This time around, Google received 93 requests to take down government criticism. Four of the requests were submitted as copyright claims.

Historically, the requests range from the humorous to the disturbingly self-serving. For instance, in Argentina, Google received a request last year to remove a YouTube video that allegedly defames the president by depicting her in a compromising position. “We age-restricted the video in accordance with YouTube's Community Guidelines,” the company said. In Brazil, it received a court order signed by a judge that ordered it to remove two blog posts, one of which was critical of the judge that signed the order. Google appealed the order and the case is still pending.

Then, of course, there was the notorious brouhaha last year, when Google received inquiries from 20 countries regarding YouTube videos that contain clips of the "Innocence of Muslims" movie, which makes fun of the Prophet Mohammed. Of course, that particular film sparked death threats and riots worldwide as well.

Interestingly, this time, the company saw a significant increase in the number of requests it received from two countries in particular: Turkey and Russia.

It received 1,673 requests from Turkish authorities to remove content from Google’s platforms, nearly a tenfold increase over the second half of last year. About two-thirds of the total requests (1,126) called for the removal of 1,345 pieces of content related to alleged violations of “Law 5651.”

Turkish Law 5651 on the Internet provides for the widespread mass blocking of websites if there is even an “adequate suspicion” that any of the following eight offenses are being committed: encouraging suicide, sexual exploitation or abuse of children, facilitating the use of narcotics, supply of unhealthy substances, obscenity, online betting; or anti-Ataturk crimes.

“It is this latter provision which causes difficulties,” explains Reporters without Borders. “In its name, websites hosted in Turkey are often shut down, and those hosted abroad are filtered and blocked by Internet service providers. Denunciations are encouraged: Internet users can call a hotline to report prohibited online content and illegal activities.”

Meanwhile in Russia, there has been an uptick in requests since a “blacklist” law took effect in November 2012. The law is aimed at taking down websites devoted to drug use, suicide promotion and paedophilia, but is vaguely worded and has been used as a tool for censorship, critics say.

Google received 257 Russian removal requests during the reporting period, which is more than double the number of requests it received for all of 2012.

“While the information we present in our Transparency Report is certainly not a comprehensive view of censorship online, it does demonstrate a worrying upward trend in the number of government requests, and underscores the importance of transparency around the processes governing such requests,” Infantino said. “As we continue to add data, we hope it will become increasingly useful and informative in policy debates and decisions around the world.”

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