If artists have been wondering why they’re getting a notice about their YouTube video being taken down because of some random law in their own country, this is probably why: in a sign that the United States government–along with other governments of the Western world–is looking to crack down on videos deemed offensive, the number of flagged YouTube videos has increased.
“It’s alarming not only because free expression is at risk, but because some of these requests come from countries you might not suspect — Western democracies not typically associated with censorship,” Dorothy Chou, a senior policy analyst at Google, wrote in a blog post Sunday.
The report, which covers the period from July to December 2011, stated that United States agencies have asked Google to remove 6,192 pieces from its search results, blog posts or YouTube videos. The company said in the report that it has complied with 40 percent of court orders and 44 percent of other government requests.
So if a video goes viral but a government agency has an issue with it because it made false statements, they could file a request with Google to remove it. Chances are that the 1st Amendment–which guarantees freedom of speech–will prevent most requests from going through in the U.S.
In individual cases, Google said it had denied a request to remove a blog post because it had “allegedly defamed a law enforcement official in a personal capacity,” but had categorized it as a defamation request. However, in another court request, it did remove 25 percent of the 218 results cited in the order.
While Americans are mostly free to watch or produce YouTube content without having the government step in, stricter laws on speech and content abroad has forced Google to follow their lead. In the United Kingdom, for instance, Google complied with an Association of Police Officers ruling to remove 640 videos because it violated YouTube’s Community Guidelines and promoted terrorism.
Meanwhile, Thailand’s lese majeste law banning criticism of their king, India’s prohibition of offensive religious and political content, and Turkey’s law against insulting Ataturk prompted YouTube to either remove the videos in violation of Community Guidelines or restrict them from viewers in their respective countries.
Of course, YouTube has the power to not follow with requests, including one by Passport Canada to remove a video of a Canadian urinating and flushing his passport down the toilet, which is protected speech under Section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
YouTube faces many regulations as it does business in individual nations–regulations that could stifle free expression for artists. Violating certain speech laws could put themselves or YouTube at risk for possibly violating the laws of their land or face suppression from the court system.
With the rough patchwork of protected speech in Western nations, Eva Galperin, International Freedom of Expression Coordinator for the digital rights organization Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), said that the increase in requests by government entities is an ongoing trend towards targeting the Internet.
Galperin told NMR:
“What you’re seeing here is a reflection of the fact that government agencies within the United States and governments all over the world are more aware what is online, and learned that they can contact Google and have them either hand over information about users or take down content.”
Galperin noted that the EFF has its “Who Has Your Back” campaign, in which they review top Internet companies and how they protect users and how they comply with government requests to take items down.
She notes that Google stands out from other Internet companies because of its transparency efforts and that no other company comes close to recording such data.
“Facebook has just as much information as Google does, but we don’t know how many requests they get or how many of them they comply with,” Galperin added. “It’s up to companies that store a great number of user data to step up and be honest with the number of requests they get from the government.”
Chou said in the blog post that Google is stepping up by providing such data.
“We realize that the numbers we share can only provide a small window into what’s happening on the web at large,” she wrote. “But we do hope that by being transparent about these government requests, we can continue to contribute to the public debate about how government behaviors are shaping our web.”