De-censoring Censorship: Google & The Economist

An interesting coincidence. Google and The Economist each just decided to do something about the censorship they face in various countries. Though these companies are obviously quite different from each other, they both have an annoying habit of exposing embarrassing information that some rulers would prefer their people not see. Some of the reasons for the censorship may be legitimate security concerns, but when you aggregate these actions and compare them by country, it makes you question the relative freedoms available to citizens in each of these countries. And that’s the point.

In Blacked Out, The Economist shares some great anecdotes of the kinds of issues that countries have censored in their magazine. For instance, Malaysia wasn’t too keen on a cover image from the December issue that showed a bare-breasted Eve. Pakistan didn’t like it either, but because the depiction of Adam breaks the Muslim prohibition on depicting Koranic figures. Some of the censorship is decidedly low-tech too; with everything from ripping out pages to blacking out images. The article also has an interesting graph comparing countries. Top of the chart? India, followed by China.

The Google Transparency Report takes a more quantitative approach, as you might expect from an information processor like Google. No interesting anecdotes here about exactly what they were asked to censor or “remove.” They do break out the requests by service area, however. So in the USA for example, of the 687 items that were requested to be removed between January and June of 2010, 394 were from Google Groups and 169 were content from YouTube.

The Google report is not, strictly speaking, just a censorship report. In fact, some of the more ominous information here are the “data requests” where Google is asked for information about its user accounts or products. This is the government taking a closer look at its citizens. Again, much of this is probably legitimate security and law enforcement stuff. But start to look at the aggregate numbers and it says something about the differences between countries. The United States tops the list of data requests, but Brazil (yes, Brazil) isn’t that far behind. Huh? Meanwhile, the United State’s neighbor to the north has virtually nothing in this report. Neither does China, but unlike Canada, that’s because China blocked Google from even exposing these numbers.

Even powerful companies like Google and The Economist can’t trump the sovereignty of countries when it comes to issues like censorship and spying on their citizens. What they can do, however, is expose these activities to make them a little more transparent to all of us.

It’s an important step and shows good leadership from these companies. It would be wonderful to see this habit catch on with other firms involved in information publishing and social networks.