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What govt doesn't want you to see on Google

Requests from the Indian government to remove content from various Google products nearly doubled in 2021 and touched an all-time high, according to the bi-annual Google transparency report (Photo: Reuters)Premium
Requests from the Indian government to remove content from various Google products nearly doubled in 2021 and touched an all-time high, according to the bi-annual Google transparency report (Photo: Reuters)

The number of requests for content removal going from the Indian government to Google is increasing at a fast clip. India is now ranked next only to Russia and South Korea on this count

While Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledged India’s commitment to freedom of speech at a world forum last week, it was a tumultuous time on social media platforms back home. Twitter withheld tweets by journalist Rana Ayyub about the Gyanvapi mosque and blocked three popular accounts linked to protests against the now-scrapped agriculture laws. A tweet by an unidentified user became the basis for a police case against fact-checker Mohammed Zubair. YouTube removed the late singer Sidhu Moose Wala’s song referring to the Sutlej-Yamuna Link canal, citing a government request.

Data released by social media companies shows that the number of requests they get from the Indian government to remove content or to share user information is rising every year. A Plain Facts piece in July 2021 had documented the Twitter numbers, while this piece examines the data for Google.

Requests from the Indian government to remove content from various Google products nearly doubled in 2021 and touched an all-time high, according to the bi-annual Google transparency report. In absolute number of requests, India was next only to Russia and South Korea. YouTube has been the prime target over the years.

Requests to Facebook and Twitter have also increased, similar reports released by them show. Between 2019 and 2021, the number of information requests to Facebook nearly doubled. On Twitter, the number of removal requests grew 7.6 times in 2020, and further doubled during the first half of 2021, as compared to the corresponding period of 2020.

App action

Most removal requests from the Indian government to Google are related to content on YouTube. Between 2011 and 2015, removal requests for YouTube formed 33% of total requests. Between 2016 and 2021, this increased to about 60%. The absolute number of content-removal requests on YouTube has increased from 62 in 2011 to 1,670 in 2021.

For the last two years, the second-largest recipient category of removal requests has been Google’s Play Store. In this period, one of the retaliatory actions taken by India against Chinese acts of aggression on the border has been the banning of Chinese apps. So far, India has banned over 300 Chinese apps in four tranches, beginning July 2020. In absolute terms, the number of content-removal requests on Play Store multiplied from 132 in 2020 to 1,684 in 2021, though it’s not clear how many of these pertained to these banned Chinese apps and how many related to other apps.

Top reasons

Judging by the number of the banned Chinese apps and the reasons for removal, a large number of requests directed at the Google app store appear to relate to other apps. In 2021, about 89% of the government’s app removal requests to Play Store related to ‘impersonation’. According to Google policies, impersonation refers to an app misleading users by appearing similar to someone else’s product in terms of app icons, descriptions, titles, or in-app elements.

In the last 11 calendar years, 2021 was the only year when ‘impersonation’ was the No. 1 reason for content removal across all Google products. Otherwise, it had mostly been ‘defamation’, which was cited as the reason for 26% of all requests made to Google between 2011 and 2021. Roughly, three out of every four defamation requests were related to content on YouTube. Other categories such as obscenity/nudity, privacy and security, and national security accounted for a small share.

Sticky India

In 2021, Google released data pertaining to content-removal requests by governments for 99 countries. India was ranked third, after Russia and South Korea, with a 7% share. At 33,263, the total requests made by the Russian government in 2021 amounted to about nine times that put in by the Indian government.

In the 11 years for which Google has released these reports, four countries have featured in the top 10 list each year. India is one of them, with the others being Brazil, Turkey and the US. There’s a fair amount of stickiness at the top. This is coming from some large-population countries (India, US, Brazil and Russia) as well as from developed countries with relatively smaller populations (France, Germany and UK). Among India’s neighbours, Pakistan has four mentions, while Bangladesh entered the list for the first time in 2021.

www.howindialives.com is a database and search engine for public data.

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