Google: a case for internet regulation?
Myriam Francois-Cerrah looks at the search giant's latest figures on government take down demands
27 Oct 11

Myriam Francois-Cerrah looks at the search giant’s latest figures on government take down demands

British internet users are among the most likely in the world to have their data requested by authorities, according to Google’s bi-annual Transparency Report. The publication revealed a sharp rise in requests for user-data and content-takedown, by both the UK and USA governments, through a combination of court orders and government or police requests. Worldwide, the majority of requests were based on claims of defamation, privacy and security, or “other”. In the UK, where the rise in the rate of requests outpaced many other countries, Google fully or partially complied with 82 per cent of requests for more than 200 targeted items on YouTube, with the remainder divided between web search results, blogs and other services. It seems the government increasingly wants to know what we’re browsing and Google are quite happy to share that information.

In addition to accessing user-data, the report points to a rise in censorship. Google announced it had received six requests from the British government and police to remove 135 videos for “national security” reasons, compared with zero requests during the previous six months. The Home Office has sought to justify the intrusion by stating that “the government takes the threat of online extremist or hate content very seriously”, but the requests point to an ongoing tension between citizens’ right to privacy and national security. It also puts into sharp focus current limits on free speech, based on the claim that online materials play a significant role in radicalization and are therefore legitimate targets for censorship. Following revelations Roshonara Choudhry took inspiration from YouTube talks by the late radical preacher Anwar al Awlaki in the attempted murder of Labour MP Stephen Timms, the total number of items that British authorities sought to censor more than doubled from 156 to 333.

But tensions over censorship have become equally salient in other countries. In India, the government placed a request for censorship of protests against social leaders and the use of offensive language in reference to religious leaders. Although Google declined the majority of these requests, it locally restricted videos that appeared to violate local laws prohibiting speech that could incite enmity between communities, inline with its official modus operandi. The report provides insight into how Google complies with local laws, even if they appear designed to stifle free speech, such as in Turkey, where Google restricted users from seeing material about the private lives of political officials. It also restricted Thai users from accessing 90 per cent of YouTube videos deemed insulting to Thailand’s monarchy, an illegal act under local laws.

Google has itself played a significant part in raising questions over the legitimacy of government intrusion into private data and the curtailing of freedom of informationand it is part of the company’s strategy to spotlight the issue of government access to citizens’ online information. Google is part of the “Due Process Coalition,” along with AOL, AT&T, Microsoft, and Facebook, a group which pushes for reform to the US Electronic Communications Privacy Act, a 1986 law that allows government investigators to review users’ online information (including email and other stored data) without a warrant.The internet giant has also said it hopes its report will contribute to the ongoing public discussion on the ways the internet needs to be regulated. Dorothy Chou, senior policy analyst at Google stated, referring to the report: “We believe that providing this level of detail highlights the need to modernise laws like the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which regulates government access to user information and was written 25 years ago — long before the average person had ever heard of email.” Others have also added that the expansion of online activity is out of sync with out-dated legislation.  This has left companies with access to sensitive private data open to government intrusion, such as concerning web-user data in the US, where in many instances laws donot require a search warrant.

Derrick Harris of Gigaom claims that companies like Google are in the sensitive position of having to interpret laws that are too old to properly address these requests: “Content-removal requests come in before there has been any real legal proceeding, and platform providers such as Google are forced to play judge and jury. They must balance legal risks against free speech in deciding whether content should stay up or be removed.”

This raises concerns over the possible erosion of freedom of speech and personal privacy, through a failure to outline updated legislation which can adequately protect internet users.

The US, long regarded as a bastion of free speech through its constitutional grounding, currently leads the world in government requests for information on citizens’ online activity, sending 5,950 requests for data about Google users and services between 1 January and 30 June 2011, a 29 per cent increase over the previous six months. Given that Google says it complied wholly or partially with 93 percent of those requests, an almost 40 percent compared to a year earlier, both Google’s responses and the legislation underlying them, raise fundamental questions over digital safety and privacy.

Google’s report also indicates that compared to the previous six months, the number of content removal requests it received from the United States increased by 70 percent. Worryingly, this included requests for it to remove videos of police brutality and the defamation of police officers, to which the group declined to comply. In the US, Google says, it received 92 requests for data removal, covering 757 pieces of content, including YouTube videos and content posted in Google Groups. The company says it complied (at least partially) with 63 percent of these requests, but left information alone in cases where it didn’t appear to violate Google’s Terms of Service or local laws. Company spokesman Stephen Rosenthal stated “we don’t simply censor on request, we ensure there is a case for removal.” But Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, has argued that given that YouTube is a public platform, any steps to censor it should be backed with a court order and some form of judicial process: “Police seem to be advising Google on what material might be breaking the law, and then Google decides to censor this material without a court order.”

Killock raised concerns over freedom of the media and its potential misuse as a police tool to gather evidence, referring to British prime minister David Cameron’s urging of news outlets to hand over to police all material collected during the UK riots.

The report’s findings suggest the need to rethink the idea of cyber-space as a place of unadulterated freedom, through its lack of regulation. Rather, the rise in government requests for accessing personal data and attempts to censor materials without any recourse to legal due process, suggests internet uses may be better protected through increased regulation which can adequately define the boundaries of state intrusion and ensure companies, like Google, are not left unchecked to make critical decisions about freedom of expression.

Myriam Francois-Cerrah is a writer, journalist, budding academic