India Leads the World in Facebook Censorship

Nashik, India, on Feb. 3 Photograph by Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg

Facebook published its second transparency report on Friday morning, and this one includes more than just instances of governments seeking information about social network users. Now Facebook also reveals times when governments restrict access to content because it violates local laws. As an example, Facebook cites German laws against Holocaust denial. Sure enough, German authorities asked Facebook to restrict such content 84 times in the last six months of 2013.

But by far the most censorious government was India, where Facebook said authorities restricted content 4,765 times. India’s approach to Internet speech has been a flash point for years, with the government saying it wants to regulate content that is offensive to religious or ethnic groups, and companies such as Facebook and Google bristling at the restrictions. Turkey also ranks high on the list, which is unsurprising given its recent attempts to restrict Twitter use.
Here’s who is asking for content to be removed, and how often they’re doing it:

Content Restriction Requests on Facebook
India: 4,765
Turkey: 2,014
Pakistan: 162
Israel: 113
Germany: 84
France: 80
Austria: 78
Australia 48
United Arab Emirates: 12
Italy: 5
Russia: 4
United Kingdom: 3
Bangladesh: 3

In large part the countries asking for information were the same ones asking for material to be taken down. Of the eight countries issuing the most requests for user information, six of them also asked that some content be taken down locally. The exceptions were the U.S. and Brazil, whose governments are very curious but apparently not so censorious.

Facebook says it’s not permitted to reveal how often the requests are granted and notes that it doesn’t automatically accede to government requests for local censorship. “Facebook’s mission is to give people the power to share, and to make the world more open and connected. Sometimes, the laws of a country interfere with that mission, by limiting what can be shared there,” wrote Colin Stretch, the company’s general counsel, in a blog post accompanying the report. “When we receive a government request seeking to enforce those laws, we review it with care, and, even where we conclude that it is legally sufficient, we only restrict access to content in the requesting country. We do not remove content from our service entirely unless we determine that it violates our community standards.”

This is the first time Facebook has released data on such requests, so it’s just a snapshot of a single period. Twitter, on the other hand, has been releasing similar information for several years. Twitter took a lot of criticism when it said in 2012 it would grant some government requests to restrict content that violated local laws. Governments are asking Twitter to restrict content with increasing frequency, up ninefold in the last six months of 2013 compared with the same period the year before. Still, these requests to Twitter are much less frequent than those made to Facebook. In the last six months of 2013, all the governments of the world asked Twitter to restrict content 377 times. Interestingly, Brazil’s government made the most requests, despite letting Facebook be.

Unlike Facebook, Twitter tells how often it actually restricts content. For its most recent report, it did so 11 percent of the time. That adds up to 191 tweets that people didn’t see. In the majority of cases, the people not seeing them were French.

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