Google’s latest Transparency Report was released last week. This post examines freedom of expression and the openness of the Internet.
Early last week, Google released its latest Transparency Report in which it highlighted that the Trinidad and Tobago (T&T) Government had requested the removal of ten YouTube videos, which it refused to do. Nine of the videos featured Prime Minister, Hon. Kamla Persad-Bisssessar, dancing with a bottle in hand. The tenth was of a news reporter admonishing the Attorney General, Anand Ramlogan, for being rude.
Although Google declined the T&T Government’s request, governments worldwide are increasingly requesting the removal of data from a number of Google’s properties/services. Within the six-month period, January to June 2012, Google received 1,791 requests from governments to remove content from its services, which was a 70% increase from the previous six-month period (Source: Google). Hence the T&T incident, along with the countless others that are occurring worldwide, ought to cause us to consider: how truly open is the Internet?
Google’s Transparency Report
Since 2010 and twice per year, Google has been releasing its “Transparency Reports”, with the goal of highlighting, through its tools and services, incidents when the free flow of information might have been challenged by the actions of others. The report is divided into three main sections, as summarised in Table 1.
In a recent article published by Google on its June 2012 Transparency Report, it noted “government surveillance is on the rise”. There were 20,938 inquiries from government entities around the world to hand over user data between January and June 2012, which has been steadily increasing since the inception of the report (Figure 1).
Additionally, with regard to requests for the removal of information from Google’s services, the grounds upon which those requests are being made are diverse, and for most of them, their numbers have also been growing since 2010 (Table 2).
Further, it is important to highlight that although governments are increasingly requesting data to be removed, Google has not been acquiescing to every request. As reflected in Figure 2, Google has fully or partially compiled with under 70% of the requests since 2009, and for the first half of 2012, that figure is under 50%.
Issues and concerns highlighted by the Transparency Report
To varying degrees, Google rigorously examines all removal requests and data requests that are submitted, and determines the extent to which it will act on them. However, the volume and nature of the requests does highlight a number of growing tensions which affect the openness of the Internet, the most obvious of which are:
- freedom of expression versus unlawful actions
- freedom of expression versus censorship
- freedom of expression versus societal protection or undesirable activities.
At the crux of these conflicts appears to be the premise of freedom of expression, and the ways it is can be exercised on the Internet. According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19,
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
Moreover, on the Internet, content creation and dissemination is no longer controlled by a select few entities, such as website owners and administrators, Internet Service Providers (ISPs), and domain administrators. Online property ownership has become more affordable, or even free in several instances, and thanks to social media in particular, every user is intrinsically a content developer. He or she can publish text, images, music, videos, etc., online, and as happens regularly, some of those posts become viral, i.e. they are shared or viewed extensively worldwide. Importantly, social media platform owners actively encourage user generated content, as many of their revenue/business models rely not only on having large user populations, but also on the degree of engagement that is occurring on their respective platforms.
Hence although the Universal Declaration of Human Rights appears to bestow a very liberal right to freedom of expression, in practice, local laws and acceptable societal behaviour temper that right. Based on Table 2 above, most of the reasons provided to support removal requests would potentially be either unlawful or undesirable behaviour/activities in the requesting jurisdiction.
In a similar vein, and perhaps when the proposed basis of a removal request is along the lines of undesirable behaviour/activities, or societal protection, consideration must be given as to whether or not or the extent to which a government might be trying to censor information or freedom of expression. For example, with regard to the T&T Government’s request to Google for the removal of certain video clips, the ground for that request was defamation. However, the request was reportedly not supported by any order of the court, and from the information in the public domain, it does not appear that the video clips had been purposely doctored to malign public officials. The footage already existed.
In summary, the Internet might not be as open as we were initially led to believe. Although we can attempt to publish any- and everything online, increasingly, Government and the courts, especially, are forcing website owners/administrators, and even ISPs, to remove what it considers offending content.
To its credit, through its Transparency Report, Google is highlighting the instances when the flow of information has been threatened, but it is perhaps the only major online property that does this. Hence we, as online citizens, are truly none the wiser as to how pervasive such actions from governments and courts might be, and the extent to which freedom of expression on the Internet is being affected.
Image credit: Stuart Miles (FreeDigitalPhotos.net)