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In the Defense of Free Speech: Google Versus Big Government

Here’s a joke: what do the governments of both Spain and China have in common? No, it’s not a common love for gazpacho — it’s…

Here’s a joke: what do the governments of both Spain and China have in common? No, it’s not a common love for gazpacho — it’s an interest in censoring political speech by telling Google to alter search results. And Spain is not alone; Poland, Canada, and the United States, among others, are also seeking to renege on the fundamental democratic concept of free speech.

Google released an official blog post on June 17 stating its concern over the recent spike of Western democracies asking the company to remove political speech from both its search results and YouTube. In addition, the company released another installment of data for its Transparency Report, encompassing July to December 2011. The statistical information reveals the number of requests for user information or the censoring of blog posts or videos and the percentage of requests that Google chose to accept or deny.

The statistics are startling; in the case of the United States, Google saw the number of content removal requests rise by 103 percent in comparison to the previous reporting period (January to June 2011). While Google did not reveal where every request originated, the instances shown on the Government Removal Requests page involved a police department attempting to remove an allegedly defamatory blog post, another police department seeking to remove over 1,000 YouTube videos for alleged harassment, and a court order demanding the removal of over 200 allegedly defamatory websites. Furthermore, the United States received the gold medal for its sheer preponderance of user data requests, finishing the reporting period with 6,321 requests, of which 93 percent were “fully or partially complied with.” India finished in a distant second with 2,207 total requests and a 66 percent acceptance rate.

Even Canada decided to join in the fun. The Passport Canada office requested the removal of a YouTube video featuring a Canadian citizen urinating on his passport. Google, much to the chagrin of the Canadians, did not remove the video. While Canada certainly has tighter laws on free speech, the video did not break any of them. Censoring political speech just because it offends a single office in government would set an egregiously dangerous precedent.

In Spain, the assault on political speech was particularly shameless. The Spanish Data Protection Authority made 14 separate requests to remove a grand total of “270 search results that linked to sites referencing individuals and public figures,” according to the report. Google, admirably, did not remove a single search result. Could you imagine a society where merely referencing (not a defamation case) public figures could incur the censoring wrath of the government? How is that democracy?

‘Atta Boy!

Google should be applauded for its Transparency Report. This is not to pretend that the company is entirely pure and free from criticism – more on that later – but the data is fascinating and should enhance the discussion of government’s role on the Internet in the 21st century. Other large web properties would do something similar, (looking at you, Microsoft, Facebook, and Yahoo) so that we could better see the efforts of governments the world over to censor the Internet.

It’s imperative that we have this conversation now. In just this year alone, we’ve seen government efforts, such as the Stop Online Piracy Act, that would have frozen free speech and irreversibly changed the Internet for the worse. And the attacks on Internet freedom will only become more brazen. In June, the British government unveiled a plan to keep track of every phone call, web visit, email, or text message made in the United Kingdom. How did the British authorities attempt to pacify the public in order to orchestrate this plan? “Unless you are a criminal, then you’ve nothing to worry about from this new law,” announced Home Office Secretary Theresa May.

That guy protesting the plan? He must be a criminal. The politicians denouncing it? They must have something to hide. George Orwell must be doing quadruple backflips in his grave. This is the oldest trick in the authoritarian government handbook — denounce everyone who opposes an unpopular measure as enemies of the state. The unprecedented amount of private information this plan would grant to the government would make Stalin green with envy.

The Truth

Google should not be serving as the bulwark of a free Internet. While Google has been more benevolent than other companies to date, you can’t trust that this will stay the same way forever. Google is a publicly traded company. It does not answer to you. It answers to its shareholders and its leadership (who, to date, have done a good job). Such is the problem with Plato’s famous “philosopher kings” idea — they die. Things change. The CEO of Google 10 years from now might see fit to give into government censorship requests. The fact is, we don’t know what the future holds.

Google is already showing some worrying signs. In February, they were caught red-handed circumventing the security settings on Apple’s safari browser in order to monitor the web-browsing habits of users.  Furthermore, both the New York Times and Washington Post reported two years ago that Google entered a partnership with the National Security Agency in response to the 2010 China-based assault on Google’s servers. To be clear, the relationship is reported to not involve sharing user data. Any close relationship, however, between a government security agency that craves personal information and a company that safeguards that same commodity should be reason to worry.

What Must Be Done

Nonchalantly accepting that Google will protect our free speech and privacy is foolish. Of course, it’s the easiest solution to the growing problem of government intrusion on the Internet, but not the best. The problem must be fought at its source, and governments, which supposedly answer to the citizens, must be held accountable. This is, in many ways, an essential point in history, and we can’t afford to be lax when it comes to censorship on the Internet. And if we don’t accomplish this now, we may never get another chance.

(Images courtesy of: BGR,, Ict4bop)

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