Google released its transparency report for 2011 last month, revealing that more governments in Eastern Europe were monitoring the online activity of their citizens than ever before. Poland, Russia, Slovenia, Macedonia, and Hungary appeared again, while Ukraine and the Czech Republic are on the list for the first time.
The Google Transparency Report is the search giant’s index of requests and court-orders it receives from governments around the world. The report examined requests made over the second half of 2011, between June and December. This was the fifth data set released since Google began the initiative in 2009.
While the report said that overall the number of take-down requests in Eastern Europe is on the rise, the authors also found that governments in the region made far fewer requests than their Western counterparts. Only a small fraction of the 1,935 requests to remove content, and 34,001 requests for user data requests were made by governments in the region.
Google receives requests to remove content from its search results, take down content on its web platforms (Youtube, Orkut, Blogger), and yield user data hundreds of times a month. Governments worldwide are requesting information about the online activity of their citizens more than ever before, according the report. Google explained that this is not surprising because it attracts new users – and releases new products – every quarter.
When it decides not to abide by a government request, it is because the request is unjustified, unspecified, or because Google does not fear legal consequences for doing so. However, Google always grounds its decision whether or not to comply with a requests in local law. What might be censorship in one country, could be justifiable in another. Google’s complied with Thailand’s requests to censor 149 YouTube videos that offended the Thai king because the requests were justifiable under local law. Compliance rates are less indicative of whether or not Google views requests as censorship, but more indicative of what local law deems justifiable.
Poland led the region in the number user data requests in 2011. It made 507, 16 percent of which were successful. Hungary followed with 154 requests, none of which were successful. Russian courts filed fewer than 10 content removal requests in 2011. None of them were successful. Russia also filed 100 user data requests for the first time in 2011. The report did not single out Russia specifically for violations. Ukraine and Kazakhstan made fewer than 10 content removal requests in 2011, all of which were successful. Google did not specify the content of any other stated requests,as some are linked to ongoing investigations. Grounds for compliance include defamation, hate speech, pornography, the incitement of violence, and security concerns.
Poland was singled out in the report for requests it made to take down links to a website that criticized the country’s business development agency. The agency denied making a request for the links to be removed. Instead, it said that it only asked Google to move the links lower down on the search-results pages. While Google said that it did not comply with the request, the agency in question insists the intervention was successful. Poland also requested that a Youtube video be taken down, the reason cited was defamation.
Google is not the only website publishing records of its interactions with world governments and police. Last week Twitter released its own transparency report, though no government in Eastern Europe or Central Asia appeared in it.
The approach of these two web giants contrasts with Yandex’s quiet and close relationship with the Kremlin. Anti-government activists accused Yandex, Russia’s most popular search engine, of censorship in March 2011 when it screened images of popular protests that could be seen on Google.ru.