Censorship by Google
Google and its subsidiary companies, such as YouTube, have removed or omitted information from its services to comply with its company policies, legal demands, and government censorship laws. Google's censorship varies between countries and their regulations, and ranges from advertisements to speeches.
Numerous governments have asked Google to censor what they publish. In 2012, Google ruled in favor of more than half of the requests they received via court orders and phone calls. This did not include China and Iran who had blocked their site entirely.
In February 2003, Google stopped showing the advertisements of Oceana, a non-profit organization protesting against a major cruise ship operation's sewage treatment practices. Google cited its editorial policy at the time, stating "Google does not accept advertising if the ad or site advocates against other individuals, groups, or organizations." The policy was later changed.
In April 2014, though Google accepts ads from the pro-choice abortion lobbying group NARAL, they have removed ads for some anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers. Google removed the Web search ads after an investigation by NARAL found evidence that the ads violate Google's policy against deceptive advertising. According to NARAL, people using Google to search for "abortion clinics" got ads advertising crisis pregnancy centers that were in fact anti-abortion. Google said in a statement that it had followed normal company procedures in applying its ad policy standards related to ad relevance, clarity, and accuracy in this case.
In September 2018, Google has removed from its YouTube website a paid advertisement placed by supporters of Russian opposition urging Russians to participate in a protest set for September 9. Russia's Central Election Commission earlier sent a request to Google to remove the advertisement, saying it violated election laws that call for a "day of silence" on election matters ahead of voting, but the advertisement was blocked even in regions where there is no voting set for September 9 and in regions where authorities have authorized the pension-reform protests.
In March 2007, allegedly lower resolution satellite imagery on Google Maps showing post-Hurricane Katrina damage in the U.S. state of Louisiana was replaced with higher resolution images from before the storm. Google's official blog of April revealed that the imagery was still available in KML format on Google Earth or Google Maps.
To protect the privacy and anonymity of individuals, Google selectively blurred photographs containing car license number plates and people's faces in Google Street View. Users may request further blurring of images that feature the user, their family, their car or their home. Users can also request the removal of images that feature what Google term "inappropriate content", which falls under their categories of: Intellectual property violations; sexually explicit content; illegal, dangerous, or violent content; child endangerment; hate speech; harassment and threats; personal or confidential information. In some countries (e.g. Germany) it modifies images of specific buildings. In the United States, Google Street View adjusts or omits certain images deemed of interest to national security by the federal government.
In the United Kingdom, it was reported that Google had 'delisted' Inquisition 21st century, a website which claims to challenge moral authoritarian and sexually absolutist ideas in the United Kingdom. Google later released a press statement suggesting Inquisition 21 had attempted to manipulate search results. In Germany and France, a study reported that approximately 113 white nationalist, Nazi, anti-semitic, Islamic extremist and other websites had been removed from the German and French versions of Google. Google has complied with these laws by not including sites containing such material in its search results. However, Google does list the number of excluded results at the bottom of the search result page and links to Lumen (formerly Chilling Effects) for explanation.
As of April 18, 2010[update], Google censors the term "lolicon" on its search results, stopping users from finding meaningful results regarding lolicon material, even if the user types words along with the term which would typically lead to explicit content results; the terms "loli" and "lolita" also suffer from censorship when it is attempted to find meaningful results on the subject.
Removal of SafeSearch options
As of December 12, 2012[update], in the U.S., U.K., Australia and some other countries Google removed the option to turn off the SafeSearch image filter entirely, forcing users to enter more specific search queries to get adult content. Prior to the change three SafeSearch settings—"on", "moderate", and "off"—were available to users. Following the change, two "Filter explicit results" settings—"on" and "off"—were newly established. The former and new "on" settings are similar, and exclude explicit images from search results. The new "off" setting still permits explicit images to appear in search results, but users need to enter more specific search requests, and no direct equivalent of the old "off" setting exists following the change because adding additional explicit search terms alters the search results. The change brings image search results into line with Google's existing settings for web and video search.
Some users have stated that the lack of a completely unfiltered option amounts to "censorship" by Google. A Google spokesperson disagreed, saying that Google is "not censoring any adult content," but "want to show users exactly what they are looking for—but we aim not to show sexually-explicit results unless a user is specifically searching for them.".
Following a settlement with the United States Food and Drug Administration ending Google Adwords advertising of Canadian pharmacies that permitted Americans access to cheaper prescriptions, Google agreed to several compliance and reporting measures to limit visibility of "rogue pharmacies". Google and other members of the Center for Safe Internet Pharmacies are collaborating to remove illegal pharmacies from search results, and participating in "Operation Pangea" with the FDA and Interpol.
In January 2010, Google was reported to have stopped providing automatic suggestions for any search beginning with the term "Islam is", while it continued to do so for other major religions. According to Wired.com, a Google spokesperson stated, "this is a bug and we’re working to fix it as quickly as we can." Suggestions for "Islam is" were available later that month. The word "Bilderberg" and the family name "Buchanan" were also reportedly censored in the auto-complete results, but were available by February 2010 as well. Nonetheless, Google continues to filter certain words from autocomplete suggestions, describing them as "potentially inappropriate".
The publication 2600: The Hacker Quarterly has compiled a list of words that are restricted by Google Instant. These are terms that the company's Instant Search feature will not search. Most terms are often vulgar and derogatory in nature, but some apparently irrelevant searches including "Myleak" are removed.
As of January 26, 2011[update], Google's Auto Complete feature would not complete certain words such as "bittorrent", "torrent", "utorrent", "megaupload", and "rapidshare", and Google actively censors search terms or phrases that its algorithm considers as likely constituting spam or intending to manipulate search results.
In 2013, the Swedish Language Council included the Swedish version of the word ungoogleable (ogooglebar) in its list of new words. It had "defined the term as something that cannot be found with any search engine". Google objected to its definition, wanting it to only refer to Google searches, and the Council removed it in order to avoid a legal confrontation. They also accused Google of trying to "control the Swedish language".
Leaked celebrity content
On August 31, 2014, almost 200 private pictures of various celebrities, containing nudity and explicit content, were made public on certain websites. Shortly after, Google removed most search results that linked users directly to such content from the incident.
In January 2010, Google Australia removed links to satirical website Encyclopedia Dramatica's "Aboriginal" article citing it as a violation of Australia's Racial Discrimination Act. After the website's domain change in 2011, the article resurfaced in Google Australia's search results.
On 19 June 2014, it was reported that Google had been ordered to remove search results that linked to websites of a company called Datalink by the Supreme Court of British Columbia. The websites in question sell network device technology that Datalink is alleged to have stolen from Equustek Solutions. Google voluntarily removed links from google.ca, the main site used by Canadians, but the court granted a temporary injunction applying to all Google sites across the world. Google argued that Canadian law could not be imposed across the world but was given until 27 June 2014 to comply with the court's ruling.
Google adhered to the Internet censorship policies of China, enforced by means of filters colloquially known as "The Great Firewall of China" until March 2010. Google.cn search results were filtered so as not to bring up any results perceived to be harmful to the People's Republic of China (PRC). Google claimed that some censorship is necessary in order to keep the Chinese government from blocking Google entirely, as occurred in 2002.
Google claimed it did not plan to give the government information about users who search for blocked content, and will inform users that content has been restricted if they attempt to search for it. As of 2009, Google was the only major China-based search engine to explicitly inform the user when search results are blocked or hidden. As of December 2012[update], Google no longer informs the user of possible censorship for certain queries during search. The Chinese government has restricted citizens' access to popular search engines such as Altavista, Yahoo!, and Google in the past. This complete ban has since been lifted[when?]. However, the government remains active in filtering Internet content. In October 2005, Blogger and access to the Google Cache were made available in mainland China; however, in December 2005, some mainland Chinese users of Blogger reported that their access to the site was once again restricted[who?].
In January 2006, Google agreed that the China's version of Google, Google.cn, would filter certain keywords given to it by the Chinese government. Google pledged to tell users when search results are censored and said that it would not "maintain any services that involve personal or confidential data, such as Gmail or Blogger, on the mainland." Google said that it does not plan to give the government information about users who search for blocked content, and will inform users that content has been restricted if they attempt to search for it. Searchers may encounter a message which states: "In accordance with local laws and policies, some of the results have not been displayed." Google issued a statement saying that "removing search results is inconsistent with Google's mission" but that the alternative — being shut down entirely and thereby "providing no information (or a heavily degraded user experience that amounts to no information) is more inconsistent with our mission." Initially, both the censored Google.cn and the uncensored Chinese-language Google.com were available. In June 2006, however, China blocked Google.com once more.
Some Chinese Internet users were critical of Google for assisting the Chinese government in repressing its own citizens, particularly those dissenting against the government and advocating for human rights. Furthermore, Google had been denounced and called hypocritical by Free Media Movement and Reporters Without Borders for agreeing to China's demands while simultaneously fighting the United States government's requests for similar information. Google China had also been condemned by Reporters Without Borders, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
In June 2009, Google was ordered by the Chinese government to block various overseas websites, including some with sexually explicit content. Google was criticized by the China Illegal Information Reporting Center (CIIRC) for allowing search results that included content that was sexual in nature, claiming the company was a dissemination channel for a “huge amount of porn and lewd content”.
On January 12, 2010, in response to an apparent hacking of Google's servers in an attempt to access information about Chinese dissidents, Google announced that “we are no longer willing to continue censoring our results on Google.cn, and so over the next few weeks we will be discussing with the Chinese government the basis on which we could operate an unfiltered search engine within the law, if at all.”
On March 22, 2010, after talks with Chinese authorities failed to reach an agreement, the company redirected its censor-complying Google China service to its Google Hong Kong service, which is outside the jurisdiction of Chinese censorship laws. However, at least as of March 23, 2010, "The Great Firewall" continues to censor search results from the Hong Kong portal, www.google.com.hk (as it does with the US portal, www.google.com) for controversial terms such as "Falun gong" and "the June 4th incident" (Tiananmen Square incident). ”
In the August 2018, it was revealed that Google was working on a version of its search engine for use in China, which would censor content according to the restrictions placed by the Chinese government. This project was working on by a small percentage of the company, and was codenamed Dragonfly. A number of Google employees expressed their concern about the project, and several resigned.
In July 2014 Google began removing certain search results from its search engines in the European Union in response to requests under the right to be forgotten. Articles whose links were removed, when searching for specific personal names, included a 2007 blog by the BBC journalist Robert Peston about Stan O'Neil, a former chairman of investment bank Merill Lynch, being forced out after the bank made huge losses. Peston criticised Google for "...cast[ing him] into oblivion".
The Guardian reported that six of its articles, including three relating to a former Scottish football referee, had been 'hidden'. Other articles, including one about French office workers using post-it notes and another about a collapsed fraud trial of a solicitor standing for election to the Law Society's ruling body, were affected.
The Oxford Mail reported that its publishers had been notified by Google about the removal of links to the story of a conviction for shoplifting in 2006. The paper said it was not known who had asked Google to remove the search result, but there had been a previous complaint to the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) in 2010, concerning accuracy and claiming that the report was causing "embarrassment", requesting the story to be taken off the paper's website. The paper said two factual amendments were made to the article and the PCC dismissed the complaint.
An article about the conversion to Islam of the brother of George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, was removed after a request to Google from an unknown person under the right-to-be-forgotten ruling.
The Telegraph reported that links to a report on its website about claims that a former Law Society chief faked complaints against his deputy were hidden. The search results for the articles for the same story in the Guardian and the Independent were also removed. The Independent reported that its article, together with an article on the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 and one on new trends in sofa design in 1998, had been removed. The Telegraph also reported that links to articles concerning a student's 2008 drink-driving conviction and a 2001 case that resulted in two brothers each receiving nine-month jail terms for affray had been removed.
The Spanish newspaper El Mundo reported that some results were hidden over a 2008 news report of a Spanish Supreme Court ruling involving executives of Riviera Coast Invest who were involved in a mortgage mis-selling scandal.
On 19 August 2014, the BBC reported that Google had removed 12 links to stories on BBC News.
Germany and France
On October 22, 2002, a study reported that approximately 113 Internet sites had been removed from the German and French versions of Google. This censorship mainly affected White Nationalist, Nazi, anti-semitic, Islamic extremist websites and at least one fundamentalist Christian website. Under French and German law, hate speech and Holocaust denial are illegal. In the case of Germany, violent or sex-related sites such as YouPorn and BME that the Bundesprüfstelle für jugendgefährdende Medien deems harmful to youth are also censored.
Google has complied with these laws by not including sites containing such material in its search results. However, Google does list the number of excluded results at the bottom of the search result page and links to Lumen (formerly known as Chilling Effects) for explanation.
In March 2018, Google delisted a Wordpress hosted site from search results in Sweden, following an intense media frenzy targeted against Google, YouTube and Facebook by the tabloid Expressen and the daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter. The Wordpress site lists Swedish Jews in the public sphere, and also agitates against the dominant publishing house Bonnier Group, the owner of both newspapers.
Although perfectly legal in Sweden, the Wordpress site was described as anti-semitic. The Bonnier papers argued that Google should not promote such content, and above all not at a high rank. Ministers in the Swedish green-left government agreed with this sentiment, and threatened with national and EU regulation unless Google adapt its algorithms and delist contents of ”threats and hate” (hot och hat). Google eventually delisted the site in Sweden due to copyright claims.
Said papers also targeted the YouTube channel Granskning Sverige (Scrutiny Sweden) for its alleged extreme right-wing contents. The channel was described as a "troll factory", where members called authorities, journalists and other public figures, and recut the recorded interviews to make them fit the channel's right wing extremist world view. The interviews were broadcast against a black backdrop with the channel logotype, and the occasional use of screen dumps from newspaper articles related to the interviews. Google eventually complied with the demands, and closed the channel, citing copyright infringement and violation of terms of agreement.
On April 13, 2018, Google took part in a meeting with the Swedish government, to discuss the search company's role in the media landscape. Minister of Justice, Morgan Johansson (Social Democrats), and Minister of Digitization, Peter Eriksson (Green Party), expressed concerns that “unlawful” and “harmful” content was facilitated by Google, and that “trolls” could have a negative impact on the upcoming Swedish parliamentary election. Google agreed to refine its algorithms, and also hire more staff to make sure “threats and hate” (hot och hat) are eliminated from Google search and YouTube videos. Critics have voiced concerns that private international companies are mandated to put censorship into effect to comply with local regulations without guidance from courts, and that free speech is deteriorating at an accelerating rate.
On 21 September 2006, it was reported that Google had 'delisted' Inquisition 21st Century, a website which claims to challenge moral authoritarian and sexually absolutist ideas in the United Kingdom. According to Inquisition 21, Google was acting "in support of a campaign by law enforcement agencies in the US and UK to suppress emerging information about their involvement in major malpractice", allegedly exposed by their own investigation of and legal action against those who carried out Operation Ore, a far reaching and much criticized law enforcement campaign against the viewers of child pornography. Google released a press statement suggesting Inquisition 21 had attempted to manipulate search results.`
In 2002, "in an apparent response to criticism of its handling of a threatening letter from a Church of Scientology lawyer," Google began to make DMCA "takedown" letters public, posting such notices on the Chilling Effects archive (now Lumen), which archives legal threats made against Internet users and Internet sites.
In mid-2016, Google conducted a two-month standoff with writer Dennis Cooper after deleting his Blogger and Gmail accounts without warning or explanation following a single anonymous complaint. The case drew worldwide media attention, and finally resulted in Google returning Cooper's content to him.
In mid-2019, Google allegedly suspended Tulsi Gabbard's advertisements for her presidential campaign, while the candidate was at the height of public interest. Gabbard sued Google for $50 million in damages.
In June 2017 the Canadian supreme court ruled that Google can be forced to remove search results worldwide. Civil liberties groups including Human Rights Watch, the BC Civil Liberties Association, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation argue that this would set a precedent for Internet censorship. In an appeal Google argued that the global reach of the order was unnecessary and that it raised concerns over freedom of expression. While the court writes that "we have not, to date, accepted that freedom of expression requires the facilitation of the unlawful sale of goods" OpenMedia spokesman David Christopher warns that "there is great risk that governments and commercial entities will see this ruling as justifying censorship requests that could result in perfectly legal and legitimate content disappearing off the web because of a court order in the opposite corner of the globe".
YouTube, a video sharing website and subsidiary of Google, in its Terms of Service, prohibits the posting of videos which violate copyrights or depict pornography, illegal acts, gratuitous violence, hate speech, and misinformation about COVID-19. User-posted videos that violate such terms may be removed and replaced with a message that reads, "This video has been removed due to a violation of our Terms of Service."
In September 2007, YouTube blocked the account of Wael Abbas, an Egyptian activist who posted videos of police brutality, voting irregularities and anti-government demonstrations under the Mubarak regime. Shortly afterward, his account was subsequently restored, and later also 187 of his videos.
In 2006, Thailand blocked access to YouTube after identifying 20 offensive videos it ordered the site to remove. In 2007, a Turkish judge ordered YouTube to be blocked in the country due to videos insulting Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey (which falls under Article 301 prohibitions on insulting the Turkish nation). In February 2008, the Pakistani Telecommunications Authority banned YouTube in the country, but the manner in which it performed the block accidentally prevented access to the website worldwide for several hours. The ban was lifted after YouTube removed controversial religious comments made by a Dutch government official concerning Islam.
In October 2008, YouTube removed a video by Pat Condell titled Welcome to Saudi Britain; in response, his fans re-uploaded the video themselves and the National Secular Society wrote to YouTube in protest.
In 2016, YouTube launched a localized Pakistani version of its website for the users in Pakistan in order to censor content considered blasphemous by the Pakistani government as a part of its deal with the latter. As a result, the three-year ban on YouTube by the Pakistani government was subsequently lifted.
In July 2017, YouTube began modifying suggested videos to debunk terrorist ideologies. In August 2017, YouTube wrote a blog post explaining a new "limited state" for religious and controversial videos, which wouldn't allow comments, likes, monetization and suggested videos.
In October 2017, PragerU sued YouTube, alleging violations of their freedom of speech under the First Amendment via YouTube's "arbitrary and capricious use of 'restricted mode' and 'demonetization' viewer restriction filters" to suppress their content. A U.S. district appeals court threw out the suit in February 2020, stating that despite "[its] ubiquity and its role as a public-facing platform", YouTube was still considered a private platform (the First Amendment only applies to state actors).
In March 2018, The Atlantic found that YouTube had de-listed a video where journalist Daniel Lombroso reported a speech by white nationalist Richard B. Spencer at the 2016 annual conference of the National Policy Institute, where they celebrated Donald Trump's win at the presidential election. YouTube re-listed the video after The Atlantic sent a complaint.
In June 2019, YouTube updated its hate speech policy to prohibit hateful and supremacist work, to limit the spread of violent extremist content online. This content includes that justify discrimination, segregation or exclusion based on qualities like age, gender, race, caste, religion, sexual orientation or veteran status. For example, videos that which include Nazi ideology, Holocaust denial, Sandy Hook conspiracy theories, or flat Earth theories. The policy also aims to reducing borderline content and harmful misinformation, such as videos promoting phony miracle cures for serious illnesses.
In February 2020, YouTube reportedly began censoring any content related to the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) by removal or demonetisation citing "sensitive topics" advertiser-friendly content guideline on Twitter.
At least since October 2019, YouTube has been automatically deleting any comments that contain the Chinese terms for "50 Cent Party" (五毛党) and its shortened version "50 Cent" (五毛). They have also been deleting any comments referring to the Chinese Communist Party as "bandits" (共匪). In May 2020, YouTube made a statement to The Verge that these deletions were made "in error". 
YouTube policies restrict certain forms of content from being included in videos being monetized with advertising, including strong violence, language, sexual content, and "controversial or sensitive subjects and events, including subjects related to war, political conflicts, natural disasters and tragedies, even if graphic imagery is not shown", unless the content is "usually newsworthy or comedic and the creator's intent is to inform or entertain".
In August 2016, YouTube introduced a new system to notify users of violations of the "advertiser-friendly content" rules, and allow them to appeal. Following its introduction, many prominent YouTube users began to accuse the site of engaging in de facto censorship, arbitrarily disabling monetization on videos discussing various topics such as skin care, politics, and LGBT history. Philip DeFranco argued that not being able to earn money from a video was "censorship by a different name", while Vlogbrothers similarly pointed out that YouTube had flagged both "Zaatari: thoughts from a refugee camp" and "Vegetables that look like penises" (although the flagging on the former was eventually overturned). The hashtag "#YouTubeIsOverParty" was prominently used on Twitter as a means of discussing the controversy. A YouTube spokesperson stated that "while our policy of demonetizing videos due to advertiser-friendly concerns hasn't changed, we've recently improved the notification and appeal process to ensure better communication to our creators."
In March 2017, a number of major advertisers and prominent companies began to pull their advertising campaigns from YouTube, over concerns that their ads were appearing on objectionable and/or extremist content, in what the YouTube community began referring to as a 'boycott'. YouTube personality PewDiePie described these boycotts as an "adpocalypse", noting that his video revenue had fallen to the point that he was generating more revenue from YouTube Red subscription profit sharing (which is divided based on views by subscribers) than advertising. On April 6, 2017, YouTube announced planned changes to its Partner Program, restricting new membership to vetted channels with a total of at least 10,000 video views. YouTube stated that the changes were made in order to "ensure revenue only flows to creators who are playing by the rules".
Censorship of sexual content in Restricted Mode
In March 2017, the "Restricted Mode" feature was criticized by YouTube's LGBT community for filtering videos that discuss issues of human sexuality and sexual and gender identity, even when there is no explicit references to sexual intercourse or otherwise inappropriate content. Rapper Mykki Blanco told The Guardian that such restrictions are used to make LGBT vloggers feel "policed and demeaned" and "sends a clear homophobic message that the fact that my video displays unapologetic queer imagery means it's slapped with an 'age restriction', while other cis, overly sexualised heteronormative work" remain uncensored. Musicians Tegan and Sara similarly argued that LGBT people "shouldn't be restricted", after acknowledging that the mode had censored several of their music videos.
YouTube later stated that a technical error on Restricted Mode wrongfully impacted "hundreds of thousands" LGBT-related videos.
In February 2019, automated filters accidentally flagged several channels with videos discussing the AR mobile game Pokémon Go and the massively multiplayer online game Club Penguin for containing prohibited sexual content, as some of their videos contained references to "CP" in their title. In Pokémon Go, "CP" is an abbreviation of "Combat Power" — a level system in the game, and "CP" is an abbreviation of Club Penguin, but it was believed that YouTube's filters had accidentally interpreted it as referring to child pornography. The affected channels were restored, and YouTube apologized for the inconvenience.
In December 2019, YouTube abruptly took down videos related to cryptocurrency citing them as "harmful or dangerous content" and "sale of regulated goods". Days later, videos were restored by YouTube because it was an error.
On May 10, 2007, shareholders of Google voted down an anti-censorship proposal for the company. The text of the failed proposal submitted by the New York City comptroller's office (which controls a significant number of shares on behalf of retirement funds) stated that:
- Data that can identify individual users should not be hosted in Internet-restricting countries, where political speech can be treated as a crime by the legal system.
- The company will not engage in pro-active censorship.
- The company will use all legal means to resist demands for censorship. The company will only comply with such demands if required to do so through legally binding procedures.
- Users will be clearly informed when the company has acceded to legally binding government requests to filter or otherwise censor content that the user is trying to access.
- Users should be informed about the company's data retention practices, and the ways in which their data is shared with third parties.
- The company will document all cases where legally binding censorship requests have been complied with, and that information will be publicly available.
David Drummond, senior vice president for corporate development, said "Pulling out of China, shutting down Google.cn, is just not the right thing to do at this point... but that's exactly what this proposal would do."
CEO Eric Schmidt and founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin recommended that shareholders vote against the proposal. Together they hold 66.2 percent of Google's total shareholder voting power, meaning that they could themselves have declined the anti-censorship proposal.
- Criticism of Google
- YouTube Red § Licensing terms and content blocking
- Discontinued Google services
- Internet censorship
- Network neutrality
- Dragonfly (search engine)
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