Google stopped more than 300 YouTube videos from being viewed in Thailand last year, hewing to a deeply controversial law that forbids Thais from insulting their king.
The century-old lèse majesté law, championed by backers as a way to uphold the dignity of the king, has been increasingly criticized as a swipe at free speech that makes it easier to jail government opponents.
Thai officials asked Google to remove 374 videos last year, saying they violated the disputed law, the California company revealed in its most recent Transparency Report. To follow the law within Thailand, Google agreed to restrict Thais from viewing most of the targeted videos.
It was one in a growing list of requests from governments around the world that the powerful search engine company heeded. Operating a search engine that scours the globe, Google must contend with a thicket of local laws and court orders, weighing thousands of requests to erase or restrict search results.
It releases information about what it has been asked to remove and why twice a year, a sometimes surprising chronicle of what governments and companies worldwide want to scrub from the Internet.
Google canceled five accounts on YouTube that British authorities argued promoted terrorism, saying they violated its own company guidelines. It restricted some videos in Germany that the country said violated a law meant to protect children. And it also stopped Turkish Web surfers from seeing seven videos that allegedly violated laws against insulting Turkish founder Kemal Ataturk.
But Google said it brushed off other government requests, many aimed at quashing political criticism. "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," company senior policy analyst Dorothy Chou wrote on the Google blog.
Last year, Google refused to remove videos that satirized the Pakistani army, recorded police brutality in the United States, and poked fun at the lifestyle of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. It turned down a Canadian government request to remove a video of a Canadian urinating on his passport and flushing it down the toilet.
Spain unsuccessfully pushed for Google to remove search results linked to public figures such as mayors and public prosecutors, the company said. Google also scuttled a Polish Agency for Enterprise Development request to block some search results that criticized the agency.
The balancing act that Google seeks to strike is evident in India, where the company stopped Web surfers from viewing some videos in areas where local laws banned speech that could stir up “enmity between communities,” but left them viewable elsewhere in the world. It also rejected a request to remove online profiles that criticized a local politician, saying they didn't violate any laws.
The demands on Google have only grown: In India, requests to block content surged nearly 50% in the second half of the year. The upswing is even more dramatic in the U.S., where removal requests have more than doubled in the last six months, many of them tied to alleged defamation and harassment. All in all, Google says removal requests jumped by roughly a quarter worldwide in the second half of 2011.
— Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: Thai protesters hold pictures of Ampon Tangnoppakul, a man jailed under the lèse majesté law for allegedly insulting the Thai monarchy, in Bangkok on May 22. Credit: Narong Sangnak / European Pressphoto Agency