Google shows the limits of a free web

Any lingering fantasies of the web as a no-man’s land where content is free from the restraints of geographical boundaries probably should be put to rest. Google (s goog) Tuesday morning released a treasure trove of data relating to content-takedown requests, and the numbers speak for themselves: requests are up worldwide and Google complies with the majority of them.

For the six-month period ending June 30, 2011, Google received approximately 1,000 requests to remove approximately 8,400 pieces of content (it doesn’t give exact numbers for some countries), and it complied with 64 percent of them. In the United States, Google received 92 requests requesting the removal of 757 items total, and it complied with 63 percent of them. According to Google, the number of U.S. requests increased 70 percent over the previous six-month period, while U.K. requests increased by 71 percent.

Worldwide, the majority of requests were based on claims of defamation, privacy and security, or “other.” YouTube content was targeted by more requests than that of any other Google service, followed by Blogger and web search. AdWords, however, was the largest target in terms the sheer volume of content requested to be removed.

Google doesn’t break down the percentage of requests in each specific category that were granted or denied, although it does highlight a number of specific requests that it denied, including a U.S. request regarding police brutality videos on YouTube. Based on the data provided, takedown requests by executive and police agencies outnumbered court orders by about 38 percent.

Requests for user data also were up worldwide over the previous six months, including by 29 percent in the United States and 38 percent in Germany. Worldwide, Google reported 15,640 requests for data on 25,440 users, and it partially or fully complied with 54.4 percent of those requests. The United States led the way on users requests with 5,950 requests targeting 11,057 users, and Google partially or fully complied with 93 percent of them.

What does it all mean?

Google has given quite a bit of raw data and qualitative explanation, and it all points toward a world where governments and courts are increasingly seeing the web as within their realms of jurisdiction. That’s probably fine when the content involved clearly violates existing laws, but it gets questionable when we’re talking about subjective laws around the limits of free speech, such as this example from India:

We received requests from state and local law enforcement agencies to remove YouTube videos that displayed protests against social leaders or used offensive language in reference to religious leaders. We declined the majority of these requests and only locally restricted videos that appeared to violate local laws prohibiting speech that could incite enmity between communities.

I’ve always found this particular issue problematic when it comes to the Digital Millenium Copyright Act in the United States, too. Content-removal requests come in before there has been any real legal proceeding, and platform providers such as Google are forced to play judge and jury. They must balance legal risks against free speech in deciding whether content should stay up or be removed.

When it comes to requests for user data, all that Google and companies of its ilk really can do is ensure that requests are within the bounds of the law and notify users of requests for their data. But in the United States, at least, the laws regarding web-user data are still fairly lax and don’t require a search warrant in many instances. It’s yet another example of the web and the law not being anywhere near on the same page.

It’s easy to poke them for being too willing to bend to the wills of government officials and authorities, but web companies can’t flaunt the laws of the countries in which they want to operate, either. Otherwise, as separate Google data illustrates, the lights might go out on their services in those countries.

Image courtesy of Flickr user alancleaver_2000.