Digital democracy|Digital freedom
Governments’ content removal requests to Google
Governments’ content removal requests to Google
Courts and government agencies around the world ask Google to remove pieces of content regularly. Over the last ten years, governments across 150 countries have submitted 355k such requests. This right can be exercised for a number of reasons: violations of local law, evidence from court orders, and more. Also, governments often ask Google to remove political content, citing defamation, privacy, or copyright laws.
In this article, we will look further into governments’ content removal requests to Google. We will cover global trends, countries with the most requests, and the top reasons governments ask for content removal.
Top countries by Google content removal requests
Over the last decade, governments have requested content removal from 50 different Google products — from Images and YouTube to Maps. The top products with the most requests are YouTube (175k ), Google Search (104k), and Blogger (17k).
Governments across 150 countries have submitted 355k content removal requests to Google. However, it is worth mentioning that two-thirds (104 out of 150 analyzed countries) have submitted less than 100 requests in 10 years. That means that most countries’ requests are quite rare.
6 countries have submitted over 10k requests, accounting for over 85% of the total. Russia is responsible for 215k requests, which translates to 59 requests each day over the last 10 years. South Korea is responsible for 27k in total, or 7 requests daily, India — 20k (5.5 requests/day), and Turkey — 19k (5 requests/day). Brazil has submitted 12k (3 requests/day), while the US has added 11k (3 requests/day).
A single request might include multiple items to be removed from Google. This means that the number is much higher regarding the removed content item count. Over the last decade, 355k submitted requests included 3.87M items to be removed — 11 items per request.
Certain types of authorities (such as police, military, or courts) submit significantly more content removal requests than others. Since 2019, the Information and Communications Authority has submitted the most requests — 159k (or over 40% of the total). Court Order Directed at Google ranks 2nd with 13k submitted requests, and Court Order Directed at 3rd Party is third (11k). In descending order, the rest of the governmental bodies are the Police (such as Europol and Interpol), Government Officials, Consumer Protection Authority, Data Protection Authority, Suppression Orders, and the Military.
The sharp rise in content removal requests
Government requests for content removal from Google products are rising. Over the last 10 years, the global request count has risen almost 13 times — from 7k to 91k requests per year or from 19 requests per day to 249.
2022 saw a staggering 50% growth in comparison to the year before. Russia accounts for a big portion of this growth (more details on this can be found in the section “Russia aims to control its digital persona the most”). The graph above shows this trend: if you click on the red dot next to Russia, you will see that the number of requests is significantly higher than any other country’s.
Also, if we disregard Russia's impact on global trends, 2021 appears to have the highest growth over the last decade. It saw an increase of over 70% compared to 2020, the year after COVID-19 broke out and many aspects of everyday life moved online. Unsurprisingly, the most quoted reason for content removal requests in 2021 was “Privacy and security” — one-third of all requests were made for this reason.
Reasons: why do governments ask for content removal?
In total, there are 22 justifications that allow governments to request the removal of content from Google products.
National security is the most common reason cited by governments to get unwanted content removed. As per Google: “National security relates to claims of threats to security on a larger-than-individual scale. This may include, but is not limited to, claims of terrorism, extremism, threats to nation-states, breaches of federal/state security, etc.” This reason is quoted in over 27% of all the requests made over the last decade. Russia accounts for the majority of all National security-related requests overall. It is also mainly responsible for a huge (over 300%) increase in such requests in 2022.
The second most quoted reason by governments is Copyright. As per Google, “Copyright requests are requests related to alleged copyright infringement, received under notice and takedown laws such as the U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act.” This reason is mentioned in almost 20% of all the requests over the last decade. Numbers were low during the first few years but increased 8 times in 2018 and have kept growing ever since. Interestingly, Russia also accounts for most (94%) Copyright requests.
The third most quoted reason by governments is Defamation. As per Google, “Defamation requests are requests that relate to harm to reputation. This may include, but is not limited to, claims of libel, slander, and corporate defamation.” This reason is given in slightly more than 10% of all the requests over the last decade. Countries that quote this reason the most are Turkey, accounting for more than a fifth of all Defamation claims (over 7.6k requests), the US (5.9k), and Brazil (4.1k), followed by India (4k) and Germany (2k).
Some governments, including the US¹ and Brazil², use the right to remove content due to defamation without providing the same ability for their citizens. For example, the EU has “the right to be forgotten”³, which allows its citizens to ask organizations to delete their personal data, such as delisting web pages containing personal information from Google Search. However, the US and Brazil do not provide their citizens with a similar right, often claiming such a right is not supported by their constitution.
The fourth and fifth most quoted reasons are Regulated Goods and Services and Privacy and Security. Both account for 10% each. Google says: “Requests categorized as ‘Regulated goods and services’ are related to claims of infringement of various local laws of a country. This may include, but is not limited to, illegal sale/trade/advertising of pharmaceuticals, alcohol, tobacco, fireworks, weapons, gambling, prostitution and/or health and medical devices or services.” As for the fifth reason, Google states: “Requests categorized as ‘Privacy and security’ are related to claims of violating an individual user's privacy or personal information. This may include, but is not limited to, identity theft, hacking, unwanted disclosure of personal information, non-consensual explicit imagery, or requests based on privacy laws.”
Russia aims to control its digital persona the most
Out of 150 governments included in Google's report, the Russian government asks to remove publicly available content the most. Over the last decade, the Russian government has submitted 215k requests asking to remove nearly two million items. Most often, the government sought to remove content from YouTube, web search, and Blogger.
To make the number easier to grasp, Russia submitted 11 requests every working hour (assuming 160 working hours each month). This means Google could employ someone to handle Russian content removal requests as a full-time position.
Requests from Russian authorities, such as the Information and Communication Authority, account for over 60% of all content removal requests Google receives. No other government cleans the web as thoroughly. Even South Korea, which ranks second according to the number of requests, submitted eight times fewer requests than Russia.
Russia has been dominating the list since 2014. In 2013, Turkey had the most content removal requests, while Russia did not even make it to the top 3. Since 2013, Russian request numbers have increased almost 100 times: from 581 in 2013 to 58,000 in 2022. Globally, the number of content removal requests has increased 13 times during that time. However, when excluding Russia from the numbers, the number goes down to 5.
What has caused such an extreme increase in Russian requests? Russia has passed multiple laws that help control what’s uploaded online. For example, in 2017, an amendment to Russian law (276-FZ) expanded the government’s scope for requesting URLs that contain content banned in Russia to be removed from Google services⁴. Also, on March 18, 2019, Russia passed a law banning "disrespect" of authorities and spreading content that the government deems "fake news"⁵. These are just a few examples of such laws.
Over the last decade, the most common reason quoted by Russian authorities has been National security (40% of total requests), followed by Copyright (29%) and Regulated Goods and Services (13%). In 2022 — the year Russia invaded Ukraine — the dominant reason for content removal was also National Security, with over 35k requests (61% of the total) citing it.
Requests submitted in 2022 include cases such as asking to remove a site that documents civilian casualties in Ukraine or YouTube videos and comments related to partial military mobilization in Russia. Also, the Russian government tries to control how citizens perceive its partner country, China. For example, there have been cases of the Russian government asking to remove URLs leading to Wikipedia articles about Xi Jinping.
Content removal requests are on the rise
Governments have been requesting more and more content removal over the years. 2022, in particular, saw a sharp increase in governments’ content removal requests — with a staggering 50% growth, it became a record year.
The most common reason for submitting a request is National security — 27% of all requests made in the last 10 years cite this reason. Russia submits the most content removal requests to Google and is significantly ahead of other countries in terms of request numbers related to national security.
Methodology and sources
Since 2009, Google has been publishing a bi-annual report on content removal requests. This report looks into the last decade’s request number (total, year over year, by reason, by product) across 150 countries, item count, and requester type. Data collected on October 16th, 2023.
Note on Google requests: one request may include multiple items, although only one product and one reason can be selected per request. Therefore, this report mostly focuses on request count, not items included in the requests.For the complete research material behind this study, visit here.