Internet users can now see how many times their government has asked the powerful Google search engine to remove content, or reveal information about those who use its services.
Google has rolled out a new tool to reveal to the "average Joe” the number of governments' requests to censor information and to release data about Google users. Dubbed “Government Requests,” an explanation of the new technology appears on a separate page posted by the company.
Google added a disclaimer on the site noting that the map showing the number of such requests received between July 1, 2009 and December 31, 2009 was “imperfect and may not provide a complete picture of these government requests.”
That having been said, however, the tool itself is a major bonanza for any user who is interested in seeing where any country stands on the issue of censorship. One can select between data requests and removal requests, viewing an entire list of countries, as well as seeing the global map. China, where Google recently chose to shut down its operations, is excluded from the list altogether.
Google explained in a post on its blog the reason for rolling out the new tool: "Article 19 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights states that 'everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression...' Written in 1948, the principle applies aptly to today's Internet – one of the most important means of free expression in the world. Yet government censorship of the web is growing rapidly...
"Google, like other technology and telecommunications companies, regularly receives demands from government agencies to remove content from our services. Of course, many of these requests are entirely legitimate, such as requests for the removal of child pornography. We also regularly receive requests from law enforcement agencies to hand over private user data... However, data about these activities historically has not been broadly available. We believe that greater transparency will lead to less censorship.”
US Among Top Censors, Israel at Bottom of List
In the latter half of 2009, the United States filed the fourth highest number of requests to remove information, according to Google, and came in second on the list of governments asking the Internet company for information about its users.
The country with the highest number of requests to remove information by far is Brazil (291), followed by Germany (188), India (142) and then the United States (123). Brazil was also at the top of the list of countries asking to provide information about users of Google services and content, with 3,663 requests. The South American nation was followed on this list by the United States (3,580), the UK (1,166) and India (1,061).
On both lists, Israel was among those with the lowest number of requests: Israeli censors made less than 10 requests in the second half of 2009 to remove information from Google's Internet services. Israel was also listed last on the list of those to request information about users of its services.
Israel's Censor: 'Independence is Sacred'
Israeli chief censor Sima Vaknin-Gil told the Los Angeles Times in an interview this week that Israel's laws dealing with censorship date back to the British Mandate in 1945. However, she added, a simple, updated agreement is also in place, stating an understanding between the media and the censor that in order to safeguard state security, the press undertakes to submit materials to the censor. The censor agrees only to remove specific parts that are harmful to state security.
According to a 1989 Supreme Court ruling, the censor may only block publication of an item in the case of “imminent certainty of actual harm to state security.” The censor must be the one to prove that to the court, and is answerable only to the court. The decision can be appealed through an arbitration committee comprised of a judge, a journalist and a defense ministry official. Likewise, the committee becomes involved if a journalist has violated a censorship decision.
Because the censor is autonomous, said Vaknin-Gil, “A politician cannot call the censor and ask to prohibit a report that would harm his image, reputation or other interests... The censor's independence is sacred.”
Monitoring the Internet, she acknowledged, has become an issue for her office, but not with the same focus as that of China, which employs some 30,000 censors. “Israel has 34 [censors],” she pointed out. “The Internet is definitely a challenge.”