When I worked at Google, I was proud to promote one of the company’s innovative products. It wasn’t the tech giant’s magical search engine. Nor was it its efficient Android mobile phone operating system or its crystal clear Hangout video calls. It was the Google Transparency Report.
The report, the first of its kind, shone a sharp spotlight on government censorship. It recorded the number of demands for information about users or takedowns of content that Google received from governments around globe. The goal was to make authorities think twice before making such requests and to show how Google defends free speech.
The more requests Google turned down, the more delighted I was. Given the report’s powerful message, many other internet and telephone companies soon began publishing their own transparency reports.
Fast forward a decade and democracies are now agonizing over fake news and terrorist propaganda. Earlier this month, the European Commission published a new recommendation demanding that internet companies remove extremist and other objectionable content flagged to them in less than an hour — or face legislation forcing them to do so. The Commission also endorsed transparency reports as a way to demonstrate how they are complying with the law.
Indeed, Google and other big tech companies still publish transparency reports, but they now seems to serve a different purpose: to convince authorities in Europe and elsewhere that the internet giant is serious about cracking down on illegal content. The more takedowns it can show, the better.
Having once fought Europe’s “Right to be Forgotten” as a threat to free expression, the company recently updated its reports to promote its success in allowing Europeans to exercise this right. Since 2014, Google has received 2.4 million web requests to delist web links. While the company rejected more than half these results, it did take down links to articles accusing a Finn of sex crimes and an Irishman acquitted of domestic violence.
Expect additional “transparency” designed to underline Google’s own content crackdown.
The company’s transparency report does not yet include a full accounting for YouTube, the main vehicle for illegal content on Google’s services. But Google has hinted it will soon produce a dedicated report for the video sharing site.
When and if it does, it promises to show not thousands but millions of annual takedowns, many for copyright violations, but also many for breaking “community rules.”
YouTube recently announced that it has begun removing all videos from groups designated as terrorist by the U.S. or British government, even those that do not depict violence or preach hate.
The pace of private sector censorship is astounding — and it’s growing exponentially.
Only a few years ago, some six hours of video were going up every minute on YouTube. Today, it is 300 hours of video per minute. In June 2017, Facebook counted 2.01 billion monthly active users worldwide. Every 60 seconds, 510,000 comments are posted, 293,000 statuses are updated and 136,000 photos are put online.
The only possible way to monitor such a huge amount of content is by using machines. Google is coming up with algorithms, ranging from keyword filters to artificial intelligence, to moderate objectionable content.
These tools work by matching patterns of behavior and previously identified illegal content with new uploads or web browsing. But machine filtering represents a danger to free speech. According to Emma Llansó, director of the Center for Democracy and Technology’s (CDT) Free Expression Project, machines find it difficult to distinguish between fake and real news as well as between what is appropriate and what is not.
In Europe, incentives are now aligned to take down first, ask questions second. Since January 1, Germany has introduced a new Net Enforcement Law requiring that social media networks check and remove false and hate speech or face a €50 million fine.
Legal content is being censored. When Justice Minister Heiko Maas tweeted that an author who opposes immigration is an “idiot,” Twitter removed the post. Beatrix von Storch, an MP for the far-right Alternative for Germany, criticized German police for publishing a New Year’s greeting in Arabic — and Twitter suspended her account.
YouTube recently took down a video from the esteemed oped group Project Syndicate examining the revival of Holocaust revisionism. Why? Holocaust revisionism is illegal in 16 European countries, and the video sharing platform couldn’t distinguish between revisionism and an examination of it.
There are many things policymakers can do to fight fake news and propaganda. New legislation for websites could require transparency about sponsored content and who is financing them, and the amount of money for sponsored content could be capped. They could attempt to clearly define illegal hate speech.
But they must be careful to avoid creating incentives for mass removals — and ensure they don’t find themselves mimicking the behavior of authoritarian countries.
Turkey demands that internet companies hire locals whose main task is to take calls from the government and then take down content. Russia reportedly is threatening to ban YouTube unless it takes down opposition videos. China’s Great Firewall already blocks almost all Western sites, and much domestic content.
Against this disturbing trend of curbing internet freedom, companies should return to the original purpose of transparency reports — shedding light on government overreach and demonstrating how few, rather than how many, pieces of content they are willing to take down.
William Echikson, a former senior policy manager at Google, is head of the Digital Forum at the Centre for European Policy Studies.