China and Iran, classified as “not free” in Freedom House’s measure of political rights, ban both Google and YouTube. This is understandable—parties monopolising power, like Ingsoc, need a hefty control over the flow of information. The trouble arises when states limited by law, civil society and the fourth estate, in democracies like India and the US, start intruding in the cyber-world on grounds of privacy and defamation. According to Google’s latest transparency report, an aggregate of government surveillance, overall government requests for user data have risen to 20,938 in January-June of 2012, from 12,539 in 2009 fall, whereas requests for removal of objectionable content have risen to 1,791 January-July 2012 from 1,062 in 2009 fall. India ranks 2nd with more than 2,200 user-data requests in 2012, while the US tops with a galloping 7,969 user-data requests in 2012.
To most media outlets and zealous liberals, this symbolises repression. But, details may suggest a more complex reality. For one, many a request is through court orders protecting families and individuals from abuse. A court order in India requiring the removal of links to 360 adult video sites on grounds of invasion of privacy is perfectly justifiable (this too is classified as “defamation”), while in the US, a court ordered removal of 1,500 items off Google Groups to prevent defamation of a man’s family (more akin to protecting one’s liberty than censorship). Otherwise, while the requests have seen a rise, Google’s compliance rate has fallen too. From near 100% in 2009, Google now complies with fewer than 75% of court orders. In doing so, it has rejected calls by law enforcement agencies to ban polemic videos on YouTube (as in Turkey) or those criticising local governments (as in the US). So those deriding this rise in “government surveillance” may need to keep in mind the fact that not all surveillance is of the ‘Big Brother’ variety.