In 2009, Google started releasing some basic information twice a year about the takedown requests it receives from governments around the world. The idea, the company says, is to shine a little light on the “scale and scope” of the content that governments don’t want on the Internet. Google receives thousands of these requests every year—2,285 from June to December of 2012—and the company’s data indicates that in that period Google fully or partially complied with about half of those requests.
Last Thursday, when releasing that latest round of data, Google noted that it received “more government removal requests than ever before.” That’s understating the trend, a bit: In 2012 as a whole, Google received more than twice as many takedown requests as it had in 2011. “It’s become increasingly clear that the scope of government attempts to censor content on Google services has grown,” legal director Susan Infantino wrote. This varies country by country: some only bother the company a few times each year. Others get in touch multiple times each day. Among this latter group of countries, the one that has been the most aggressive about using Google to remove content—and the country who among top requesters, has had its requests shot down most often—is Brazil.
In 2011 and again in 2012, of all the countries in the world, Brazil asked Google to take down Internet content more times than any other country. Plenty of these had to do with defamation, which comprises about two-fifths of overall requests: Google’s social network, Orkut, is particularly popular in Brazil, and many of the 2011 requests related to defamation on Orkut and YouTube. But in 2012, a disproportionate number—235 court orders and three executive requests out of 697 total—related to violations of election law, the third most common reason countries cite for removing online material (second is privacy and security).
Brazil’s election law, compared to those in the United States, are restrictive. Campaigning is confined to a three-month period, and there are restrictions on how and where political advertising can appear. The law also specifically protects political candidates from content that would “offend their dignity or decorum.” These laws have been used to limit how information about politics moves—both in the traditional press and online. In past elections, for instance, bloggers have been banned from putting up banners supporting candidates before the start of the official campaign season. And the media, online and off, is operating under increasing threats and censorship. Although freedom of the press has increased since the country’s days as a dictatorship, last year the number of journalists killed in the country grew—and some of those deaths looked to be connected to political reporting. The Committee to Protect Journalists put it on a list of 10 countries where press freedom was suffering.
Google doesn’t share information about each request it receives and tends to provide details only when the requests covered are the cases in which they fight—the cases in which the company can be cast as the hero, fighting for freedom of expression. But in Brazil, at least, Google is fighting for these principles. In the United States, third parties like Google have some protections from liability for offensive content that they host but didn’t create; in Brazil, they can be held responsible for what goes on the Internet. In September of last year, the head of Google in Brazil, Fabio Jose Silva Coelho, was arrested while the company pushed back against an order to take down a nasty YouTube video about a mayoral candidate’s alleged paternity suit. Google was arguing that the video was protected by freedom of expression laws; the company lost its appeals. An arrest warrant was issued, then overturned, for another Google executive, over a video that called a politician an “idiot.”
Johanna Mendelson Forman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies suggests that Brazilian law should protect third parties like Google from this degree of liability and that politicians be exempt from defamation statutes. (That’s how American law works—no protections for candidates’ sense of dignity here.)