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For the first time, Google has released details of takedown requests lodged by the NZ government.
With the vast global span of Google, government requests to remove material from its web search results, YouTube, and other online services are a great indicator of freedom online.
That’s why publication of these requests every six months is a key global tool for keeping tabs on transparency.
Google allowing sunlight on government requests continues to set the bar high for other major online service providers.
In the past, with less than 10 requests, there was no granular information to get a good look about requests from the New Zealand government.
But in the latest results, Google has changed its policy to now also give details if there were less than 10 requests. This is therefore the first time that we can get a look at details of takedown requests from the New Zealand government.
In the transparency reports, Google distinguishes government requests between those from courts and those from the executive, police, etc. It notes that “Governments ask companies to remove content for many different reasons. For example, some content removals are requested due to allegations of defamation, while others are due to allegations that the content violates local laws prohibiting hate speech or pornography. Laws surrounding these issues vary by country, and the requests reflect the legal context of a given jurisdiction.”
Over the period January to June 2012, there were 2 requests each from the courts and executive/police for takedown of 1 YouTube video for violence; 1 Google doc for privacy & security; 12 defamatory web searches; and 1 YouTube video for ‘other’ reasons, i.e. a total of 4 requests to remove 15 pieces of online content.
ABOVE: NZ government requests. Click to enlarge. Source: Google Transparency Report.
Clearly the largest request category of takedown requests was for removal of defamatory web searches by court orders, accounting for 12 of 15 items for takedown.
In the previous period to December 2011, there was only 1 court order to remove 3 defamatory web searches. There has therefore been a big jump in the last 6 months but it is off a very low base and it is probably too early to call it a definite trend.
Comparison with Australia
Over the same 6 month period January to June 2012, the Australian government put in 13 requests for takedown of 92 items, a slight reduction in the number of requests (17) but steep fall in the number of items (646) from the previous period.
Interestingly, in contrast to New Zealand, the Australian government requests in the last six months were for reasons of privacy and security in web searches (53% of total) and copyright (30%). Only 11% were for defamation, contrasting with 80% for New Zealand.
Google’s removal of all or some of the items requested, the compliance rate, for New Zealand government requests fell from 100% in the previous period to 75% in the latest 6 month period January to June 2012. The implication is that Google refused to remove 25% of 15 requested items, i.e. 4 items but there are no further details. Were they from the courts or from the executive/police? Which product? What were the complaint grounds for the items refused?
Unfortunately, there are no answers to these questions.
ABOVE: Google's acceptance of New Zealand government takedown requests. Click to enlarge. Source: Google Transparency Report.
Google’s Transparency Report may portend danger ahead, both for Google and New Zealand. One has to be careful about drawing conclusions as the number of requests from the New Zealand government are low- 4 requests to takedown 15 items. Nevertheless, consider the implications of 12 of these 15 were for defamatory web searches by the courts.
Google has just lost a defamation lawsuit in Australia. An Australian court ordered Google to pay $208,000 to Milorad Trkulja for showing search results that might have caused users to link him to mobsters. A jury agreed with Trkulja, saying that although Google didn't own the links potentially tying Trkulja with organised crime figures, the company was responsible for displaying them. [See NZ lawyer Michael Wigley's analysis of the case here - Editor].
So here’s a prediction: expect lawsuits against Google in New Zealand for defamatory web searches. And, if the Australian precedent holds, Google may well be hit by big costs.
There is also a second angle. The Law Commission has recently sent a Ministerial Briefing Paper and a draft Communications (New Media) Bill to government. While the government wanted to address cyber-bullying, the draft bill takes on the much larger job of tackling all types of harmful digital communications. This has raised several red flags including the collateral damage from the ambitious but difficult task of tackling defamation online.
John Edwards put the danger of the draft bill going ahead as proposed very well, “...the axe grinders, the lobby groups and political interests presented with a new, cheap, and readily accessible forum for advancing their grievances and personal hobby horses.”
So here’s a second prediction: if the Communications (New Media) Bill goes ahead unchanged, the Approved Agency and Tribunal are going to be flooded with defamation complaints. The government’s intention of addressing cyber-bullying will be drowned by the noise of New Zealanders complaining about defamation online.
Vikram Kumar is chief executive of InternetNZ, the non-profit organisation that administers the .co.nz domain and advocates on behalf of internet users.