You’ve probably heard the news that Google’s latest “transparency report” showed that the number of countries demanding certain content be removed from the web had shown a remarkable increase during the period from July to December 2011. If you need figures , you can visit the table provided by Google showing in aggregate across countries how many removals they’ve performed in response to court orders, as opposed to other types of requests from government agencies.
The report mentions countries usually not associated, at least not presently, with blatant censorship practices like Canada and Spain. Worldwide, Google affirmed it had received over 467 court orders covering over 7000 during the last six months of 2011. It also received 561 other requests, including from the police, covering about 5000 items in the second half. It seems the U.S. topped in requests for user data with 6321 requests of which 93 percent were fully or partially complied with, while India came second with over 2000 requests, of which 66 percent were complied with by Google. Some of the requests in the U.S. were on behalf of other governments.
Spanish media reactions
As you may well imagine, the references to Google’s report in Spanish media were quite different and somewhat defiant. A number of Spanish newspapers questioned the appropriateness of the term ‘censorship’ and the lack of disclosure of specific data, i.e. information on blogs or persons whose right to privacy was being protected.
Google claims that it received 43 requests by Spanish governmental bodies (including the police) to remove from its search results 307 specific items. Included among those are the 14 requests by the Agencia de Protección de Datos (AEPD) (Agency for the Protection of Data) to have up to 270 links removed which, according to Google, “involve blogs and other forms of online communication pertaining to persons and public figures such as mayors and public prosecutors.
About the 14 requests from July to December 2011 mentioned by Google, the AEPD said that in that period it intervened on 26 occasions in cases involving Google. In 18 cases complainants were found to be right and required the search engine to withdraw the result. Eight other cases were dismissed on the grounds of the nature of the information being considered of public importance or for formal reasons – not providing sufficient and appropriate supporting documentation. Nine others were not admissible.
The search giant and the Spanish AEPD are involved in a judicial dispute about the indexing of online information. While Google does not remove information from third parties because it belongs to the source websites, not Google, the Spanish agency believes that Google should accept a person’s ability to block information when it affects their privacy or dignity. Its director, Jose Luis Rodriguez, commented that what they did was to ask Google to halt the spread, not to remove the content. “In none of the resolutions did we ask of Google to alter their archives but we requested they did not provide the search result when it is not relevant, timely or impairs someone’s rights. The case, tried in Spain’s High Court, was referred to the Luxembourg Tribunal where a sentence has not yet been rendered.
Jose Luís Álvarez, director of the AEPD showed his disappointment in saying that it’s quite a shame that Google “deliberately confuses public opinion by mixing requests from authoritarian estates with those made legally by independent European organisms in their so-called Transparency report.
I, personally, am quite sceptical about whatever anyone says.
Dissemination of online knowledge and the Google monopoly
The search and retrieval of online information has now become consolidated into a very few web search engines. At the present time just three have most of the traffic: Google, Yahoo and Microsoft, with Google having a considerably larger market share than the others, particularly in certain countries. In the UK, Hitwise’s data (accurate as of 07/04/2012) indicated that Google dominates over 90.44% of the market. In the US, Google’s proportion of market share in March 2012 was 66%.
We all want to be seen online. And the race to be featured on that precious first page of the Google results renders itself problematic. Obviously, the items returned at the top of the first page get a disproportionate amount of activity whether they are relevant or not. Google knows how much effort we put to be in the podium and has taken advantage of this by creating an extremely lucrative business model to provide prominent site display for a fee.
The reality is that Google neither acts like nor is sheltered from competition like the monopolists of the past. Google is just merely smarter and faster than the other search engines. Its algorithms and search results are deemed superior – more accurate and usable – and this makes us like Google. We use Google because we prefer Google. It gets the job done for us quicker than anyone else. But this dominance gives it unprecedented control over information.
Monopolies as we understand them, increase their prices because they have the power to do so. Google search is a free product, supported by advertising which is not priced by Google itself. The price is determined through an auction among advertisers bidding on the use of search keywords. But does this makes us trust Google?
So, while I agree that Google has the capacity to monitor others ( and anyone with this kind of power should certainly use it to report unlawful practices), the question is who is monitoring Google? Check out the following infographic, and let’s start a debate 🙂 ( I just wonder whether Google will index this article at all, though?; Will it ever get to you?)
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