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Google Sounds Censorship Alarm in Free World

By Peter Suciu
Jun 18, 2012 12:09 PM PT

Google announced Monday that it had received more than 1,000 requests from authorities to take down content from its search results and YouTube video service during the past six months. Google has characterized this as an "alarming trend."

Google Sounds Censorship Alarm in Free World

The company also released its twice-yearly Transparency Report, noting noted that the requests were aimed at removing some 12,000 items overall. This is an increase of about 25 percent from the first half of last year.

"Unfortunately, what we've seen over the past couple years has been troubling, and today is no different," Dorothy Chou, the search engine's senior policy analyst, said in a blog post. "We hoped this was an aberration. But now we know it's not."

Google's response maybe as much about holding firm as it is about addressing every request.

"There are two reasons for Google's response," said Rob Enderle, principal analyst at the Enderle Group. "When they give in to censorship they look weak. The second is that it is damn hard to manage. It requires a substantial number of folks who can manage the process, and moreover any law or edict is open to multiple interruptions."

No Country Left Behind

The requests were not limited to countries with strict censorship policies, either. While Google refused to delete six YouTube videos that mocked Pakistani politicians and military officials, the company also refused to remove a video of a Canadian citizen urinating on his passport.

"They've been involved in this issue for a while," said Daniel Castro, senior analyst for the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation. "As an organization that has been put in this situation, they've been very upfront about how they'll address the requests to have the content removed."

The discussion may move to whether the content involved is even appropriate or not, Castro told TechNewsWorld.

Content that was deemed inappropriate was removed: 100 or so YouTube videos in Thailand that allegedly insulted the monarchy, which is a crime in that country; a video that contained hate speech in Turkey; and YouTube accounts that posted threatening and harassing content in the United States, following complaints from U.S. law enforcement agencies.

American Target

"I don't think there is any domestic political agenda," said Greg Sterling of Sterling Market Intelligence. "I don't think Google is trying to alienate anyone. They could be trying to win praise instead."

Google is actually just pushing its advocacy for free speech, he suggested. "It is probably going to peeve some people, but I don't see any immediate repercussions."

However, in an election year this might not be the savviest of moves.

"Comparing the U.S. government to China in terms of censorship isn't the best thing to do politically," suggested Enderle. "They are relatively aligned with the Democratic Party, and making statements in an election year isn't going to win them deep lasting friendships. But Google has never been savvy in terms of politics. It just isn't one of their strengths."

Will It Backfire in Europe?

Calling out governments as various regulators and watchdogs take a close look at Google probably isn't the savviest move either. While it shows that the company can take a stand, it is unlikely to make its other problems go away. Whether it will exacerbate them is the question.

"I don't think there is going to be significant pushback," Sterling maintained. "The Europeans have been very vocal about Google -- more so than in the United States -- but I don't think this has any direct impact on its ongoing legal regulatory and antitrust cases."

Google did not respond to our request to comment for this story.

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