Millions of Indians use Google and its myriad web services every day. We do not pay for them, nor have we elected the people who run Google. Google does not have to be accountable to us. In the ‘terms of services’ that we click ‘agree’ on, they could say anything because we do not read it anyway. Yet, Google convened a conference in Budapest in September 2010 to tell internet users from across the world about a problem it faced.
The problem was that while Google wanted to be nice and fair to those who use its services, in keeping with its ‘Do no evil’ motto, they weren’t allowed to do so by governments across the world. This included repressive, undemocratic regimes but also avowedly democratic ones like India. The data about India reveals that as the number of requests from India went up, Google started complying with them less and less. Google’s lawyers check whether the request is compatible with Indian law, and if the agency making it is empowered to do so. Between July-December 2009, Google complied with 77% of 142 requests.
In January-June 2010, Google removed 53% of the 125 items it was asked to. In July-December, the number of items India wanted deleted went up to 282, Google’s compliance came down to 22%. In the latter half of 2009, most of India’s requests (119 of 142) related to Orkut, followed by YouTube (15). Only one such, removal of something from Google Books, was a court order.
There were also two requests to disallow some pages from appearing on Google search. Google doesn’t tell us anything beyond these numbers: we don’t know which book was removed or which pages don’t show up when you Google. Between January-June 2010, Google complied with 55% of 30 requests it got to remove 125 items from the web. In this period, we saw YouTube become the new Orkut: they wanted 97 YouTube videos and five Orkut items removed.
In this period, one-fourth of the requests were court orders. In this period too, one more court order had something removed from Google Books. Worryingly, the number of requests to remove web searches went up to 13, of which only two were court orders. For July-December 2010, different arms and branches of the Government of India sent 67 letters and notices to Google asking them to remove 282 items.
Of these 282 items, 199 were about YouTube, of which 100 were related to defamation, of which only one was a court order. In just two requests, someone who represents us asked them to remove 53 videos. Three requests were made to remove ten videos that were about “government criticism”; some were considered pornographic or thought to be hate speech. The second-biggest target was Google Web Search: 50 items were sought to be removed. One hundred and thrty-three of 282 items were allegedly defamatory; these requests were made through 26 executive/police orders and only two court orders. If a government official found this article defamatory he would sue me and this newspaper.
But online, he can ask Google to remove it without going through the due process of law, which would give me a chance to defend myself. That this mechanism of ‘regulation’ has already stepped the Lakshman Rekha of censorship is clear when Google reveals, “We received requests from different law enforcement agencies to remove a blog and YouTube videos that were critical of chief ministers and senior officials of different states. We did not comply with these requests.” We deserve to know who these CMs were. Google has also revealed “user data requests” — that is, requests made by government authorities to reveal the private data of users.
For example: the emails you sent, or even the ones you didn’t, lying in your drafts folder. Between June 2009 and December 2010, 4,190 such requests were made. Google does not give us any detailed break-down of these numbers, and only about the third set for July-December 2010 does it tell us what percentage of requests it complied with: 79%. Which means that it did not find over a fifth of the requests to have been made within the limits of Indian law.
We can only believe in Google’s sense of fairness and dogged refusal to assist Indian government officials in doing what the law does not allow them to do. But at the end of the day, Google is a commercial organisation that has offices in India and advertising space to sell, paid services to offer companies and the government alike. Who knows when Google is under pressure to do something it does not consider appropriate — as it does in China?
Two things need to be done. One, we need to make our government accountable and make it mandatory by law for them to reveal all such requests to internet companies as and when they are made. Two, the forthcoming Privacy Bill should take into account these revelations and bring such passing on of user data from internet companies to the government under its umbrella to prevent misuse. Shivam Vij is Delhi-based journalist The views expressed by the author are personal