Part of the unique beauty of the Internet is that enables every day users to share their views to a worldwide audience and have their voice heard.
In 2010, China locked horns with Google in condemning the search engine giant’s decision to lift censorship and redirect users based in mainland China to its unrestricted site in Hong kong. The same year Google threatened to abandon the Chinese market after a number of cyber attacks were traced back to China. (1)
However, it seems that it is not only China that is requesting Internet surveillance and censorship.
According to Google’s Transparency Report, requests from worldwide governments to remove Google search results and other services spiked more than 70% in the first half of 2012.
The report revealed that there were 1,791 requests to remove 17,746 pieces of content through June alone, as stated in the LA Times. (2)
The Google Transparency Report
Google launched its first Transparency Report in 2010, the year when the company had a particularly tumultuous time with China over Internet censorship. Google has since released the report twice a year, which breaks down requests from governments around the world for Google to remove content and to show the increasing pressure Google is up against to censor content.
With more than one billion users worldwide, Google is the natural target for gripes about content because after all, if you don’t rank well on Google you may as well be invisible on the online spectre.
Not only is Google the world’s largest search engine and an ubiquitous component of the internet, but it also runs YouTube, the world’s largest video sharing site.
The Transparency Report reveals that government efforts to censor the Internet are rising. For example, the Turkish government made just over 500 requests in the first half of 2012 to remove content from the internet, a 45% rise from the previous six months.
Surprisingly enough, the country with the second highest number of censorship requests was the very country touted as supporting freedom – the United States – making 273 appeals to have content removed compared to 187 requests shown in the previous report. (2)
The Role of the Internet in Social Change
The report also revealed that the number of government surveillance demands of Internet users was on the increase, and requests for user data had risen by 15% in the first six months of 2012 compared to the second half of 2011. (2)
So why is there a growing desire from governments across the world to stifle netizens and remove online content?
The incident that immediately springs to mind when exploring this question is the role social media played in the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011. The role that Twitter and Facebook played in the political unrest and protests that occurred early last year were pivotal.
In the second edition of the Arab Social Media Report conducted by the Dubai School of Government gave pragmatic weight to the general surmise that:
“Facebook and Twitter abetted if not enabled the historic region-wide uprisings of early 2011.” (3)
In organizing and promoting protests via social media networking sites, the Internet ultimately played a vital role in the eventual demise of long-standing and dictatorial governments in Egypt, Syria, Libra and Tunisia.
Opinions about Internet censorship vary significantly, with many viewing the Internet as a perfect portal for freedom of speech, while others believe there should be greater curtailment of content on the Internet, such as cases of copyright infringement, harassment, obscene material and defamation.
How Government Interference May Affect the Internet
Google thinks it is important that its users are informed about how governmental interference with online content may alter the Internet landscape. As Dorothy Chou, senior policy analyst at Google wrote in a blog post:
“We think it is important to shine a light on how government actions could affect our users. When we first launched the Transparency Report in early 2010, there wasn’t much data out there about how governments sometimes hamper the free flow of information on the Web.” (2)
Entrepreneur, John Battelle wrote an interesting comment about Google’s Transparency Report, highlighting the question, why weren’t the likes of Amazon, Microsoft, Yahoo or Facebook producing similar Transparency Reports.
“Put it another way,” Battelle wrote, “If we are shifting our trust from the government to the corporation, who’s watching the corporations?”
The extent of how censored or uncensored the internet is also varies tremendously from country to country, with some countries having very little Internet censorship, and others, namely China, striving to suppress information, news and even discussions among users.
As the Internet grows, and with more and more people turning to the World Wide Web as a means of making their voices heard, as we saw with social media’s pivotal role in the Arab Springs uprising, the Internet is inherently a force for democracy.
Governments know this and as Google’s Transparency Report reveals, are becoming increasingly uneasy about it.