Censorship and the Internet

Google is plenty familiar to web users around the globe. The Internet search outfit's name has been a verb for years.

One thing many computer users may not realize: Google has received hundreds of government requests to remove online content in the past six months - a 49 percent increase over the previous six months - along with thousands of requests to provide governments with information about the search habits of users.

The country whose government is doing the most such requesting? The United States.

"U.S. authorities are leading the charge as governments around the world pepper Google with more demands to remove online content and turn over information about people using its Internet search engine, YouTube video site and other services," The Associated Press reported this week.

It's the fifth time Google has released a six-month snapshot of government requests since the company engaged in a high-profile battle over online censorship with China's communist leadership in 2010. (Google's censorship reports don't currently include China and Iran, because those repressive regimes simply deploy filters to censor what they don't want their citizens to see.)

Many of the requests are attempts to enforce laws governing personal privacy or "hate speech." That's bad enough. But Google says it increasingly fields requests from government agencies trying to use their power to suppress political opinions and other material they simply don't like.

"We've been asked to take down political speech," Dorothy Chou, senior policy analyst, wrote at the official Google blog. "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."

U.S. police, prosecutors, courts and other government agencies submitted 187 requests to remove content from July through December last year, more than doubling the 92 requests from January through June, Google reports.

Only Brazil's government agencies submitted more content removal requests.

And those who think their web-searching habits are a private matter may want to think again: Governments are also tapping Google more frequently for information about their citizens. The U.S. government filed 6,321 requests with Google for user data during the final six months of the year - far more than any other country, and a 6 percent increase from the previous six months.

All told, Google received more than 18,250 requests for user data during the final six months of last year, a 16 percent increase from the first half of the year.

In George Orwell's "1984," you watched TV, and the TV watched you back. That's not so far-fetched anymore.