What do Australia, Brazil, India, the United States and Britain have in common? This week, Google named each of these nations among the list of countries that most often contact it with requests for content removal and user data. Google's disclosure is a bold step towards quantifying this trend. Whether it leads to greater protection of user privacy and free expression on the Internet will depend on the policies that guide the companies' responses to these government requests. But for now this move should prompt other companies to consider how to be more transparent about the censorship restrictions they face.
Google's decision to release this information reveals with greater granularity what internet service providers have been saying for years - that governments are increasingly demanding censorship of Internet content and information about users.
As its new interactive map illustrates, this trend is global and affects users from nations with diverse political and socio-economic landscapes. Google's new tool also reveals that for some governments - notably China - mere disclosure of the requests is also subject to censorship. Most importantly, this information illustrates the need for collaborative approaches to the growing problem of Internet censorship. It is a problem that affects us all. As Secretary of State Clinton observed in her landmark speech on Internet freedom, this is about the kind of world we live in and whether all its citizens will have equal, unfettered access to information.
Google's censorship disclosure tool is far from perfect, as the company makes clear. The data is one dimensional and incomplete. There is no context provided and requests are aggregated rather than sourced to the relevant authority. That makes it difficult to compare countries or to draw useful conclusions, including about why Google has complied with such requests in the majority of instances. In addition, the data for some governments is either unavailable or subject to national legal restrictions on disclosure. Even so, Google deserves praise for its willingness to release the data that it has and to help all of us understand the kinds of challenges the company is facing every day.
The burning question - the one most everyone wants to know - is which governments make the most intrusive demands on Internet freedom and what that means for its citizens. We also want to know how companies assess these requests and respond and what those responses mean for users. It is this challenge that has led Human Rights First to join with Google and other companies to work toward greater transparency and shared solutions to Internet censorship and surveillance. The Global Network Initiative (GNI), a multistakeholder effort to address threats to Internet freedom, exists to help companies move from information gathering to assessment and action.
Though the GNI is at the beginning stages of implementation, it's headed in the right direction. We urge other companies in this sector to join this crucial effort to help defend Internet freedom.
This is a fight we intend to win and it's one that requires each of us to take a stand now.