Google refuses Pakistan’s request to remove a Pakistani petition for academic freedom

UPDATE: I gave erroneous figures in the earlier post, and have been corrected in a comment by reader Michael. I’ve emended the post to eliminate the errors.

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It’s shameful but true that American social media companies censor or warn people at the behest of Muslim countries—often Pakistan—when social-media content “offends Muslim sentiments.” In my view, it’s not the place of these companies to act as the police for repressive regimes, especially when the censored content would be acceptable outside the Middle East.

This has happened to me two times with WordPress, which banned my content in Pakistan at the behest of the Pakistani government (see here). And once the Indian government issued a police warning to me because I re-posted the tweet of a blogger showing a drawing of statue of the Hindu god Ganesha in Mecca (horrors!). I had to remove that post lest I face arrest when I went to India for a seminar trip.

It happened to Keenan Malik, a British writer of Indian descent, when WordPress, again at the request of the Pakistani government, blocked access to Malik’s website in Pakistan, apparently because Malik reposted Charlie Hebdo covers.

It’s happened to Ensaf Haidar, the wife of jailed Saudi dissident Raif Badawi, who was threatened by Twitter for posting a critique of the niqab. (She wasn’t banned from Twitter, but threatened, and Haidar isn’t even Pakistani!)

Is there any social media company that won’t act as a censorship arm of the Pakistani government? Well, yes, Google—Ceiling Cat bless them. According to a report by Sarah McLaughlin on the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) website, Google refused a Pakistani takedown request of a justified academic petition (click on screenshot):

Apparently a group of 200 Pakistani academics signed an open letter protesting four episodes that they construed as violations of academic freedom. The academics signed their names, which is a real act of bravery in Pakistan. You can find the letter and its signatories here, and it includes the statement:

All four events are part of a wider trend that stifles critical thinking and discussion on university campuses. As faculty members, we believe the university must be a space where faculty and students are free to share ideas and engage in thoughtful analysis of pressing social issues without experiencing fear or intimidation. The function of the university is to foster an atmosphere in which ideas are respectfully shared and rigorous research and analysis is encouraged. It is only through open discussion and debate that our most pressing social and political problems will be properly understood and diagnosed. The future of our country rests on how well we train our students as thinkers and analysts. It is for these reasons that the events of recent days are so troubling. As faculty members we strongly condemn the intimidation and repression taking place in universities at the moment, and we urge the relevant authorities to take action against those responsible and to ensure that our universities remain free from outside interference in the future.

Statements like these are common in Western university discourse, but to even ask for academic freedom is a no-no in Pakistan, and so, when the document was published on Google Drive, the censorious Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (the ones who beefed to WordPress about me) asked Google to remove it, for it violated Pakistan’s guidelines about “hate speech” and “unlawful online content.”

Google refused. As McLaughlin reported on January 10:

Yesterday, activist and researcher Usama Khilji shared the report on Twitter, noting that Google denied the request, which was filed between January and June 2018:

Request

The Pakistan Telecom Authority (PTA) requested removal of a Google Drive file containing the content of an open letter from concerned faculty members across several universities in Pakistan regarding academic freedom and increased repression on university campuses. The letter details academic events that were cancelled, the dismissal of professors, and cancelling of courses which encourage critical thinking. The government authority cited Section 11 on “Hate speech”, and Section 37 on “Unlawful online content” as the legal basis for removal.

Outcome

We did not remove the file.

The request came from the Pakistan Telecom Authority, which cited Section 11 and Section 37 — which lay out restrictions on “hate speech” and “unlawful online content” — of Pakistan’s 2016 Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act. . . 

Google happens to keep public records of  “government takedown requests” categorized by the country making the request as well as the reason for the request; there have been about 92,000 of these in the last four years. Not all are religious; some are based on defamation, trade infringement, fraud, obscenity, and so on. The request above had little to do with religion but a lot to do with open discourse which of course includes religious repression and dogma.

You can download lists of all the requests and see graphs of what percentage of requests were granted by Google. The five countries filing the most complaints are, in decreasing order Russia, the USA, India, the UK, and France (2009-2018). Pakistan is peanuts (292 requests) compared with Russia (61,471).

Google does remove some items, and some of those are rightly removed, but they also censor other religious content that doesn’t violate U.S. law even if it violates local “religious hate speech” laws. Here’s one:

Pakistan

Request

We received inquiries from 20 countries regarding YouTube videos that contain clips of the movie, “Innocence of Muslims”: Australia, Bangladesh, Brazil, Brunei, Djibouti, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Malaysia, Maldives, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, and the United States. Australia, Egypt, and the United States requested that we review the videos to determine if they violated our Community Guidelines, which they did not. The other 17 countries requested that we remove the videos.

Outcome

We restricted videos from view in Indonesia, India, Jordan, Malaysia, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and Turkey. Due to difficult circumstances, we temporarily restricted videos from view in Egypt and Libya.

My take on “Innocence of Muslims” was that it was a dreadful piece of anti-Islamic cinema, and the movie caused riots in many countries and at least 50 deaths.  It was taken off YouTube for a while, but is now back on. But if a film is bad or propagandistic, that’s not a violation of the First Amendment.

Google, then, is not completely exculpated from censorship. I don’t think it’s required that an American company comply with other country’s laws about blasphemy, but I’m not a lawyer. And I understand that Google, WordPress, and Twitter make money from their content in other countries, and don’t want to alienate those countries by hosting offensive material. But something sticks in my craw when my own website is censored in places like Pakistan. If Pakistan wants to censor something because it violates local law, let them censor it, but don’t make American countries complicit in the censorship.

I’m not only angered that an American country acts as Pakistan’s censor, but also disappointed that Pakistanis don’t get to see certain things because they’re considered blasphemous. Yes, many Pakistani Muslims will flat-out refuse to see anything that, say, makes fun of Muhammad. But some are capable of open-mindedness and will watch “blasphemous” films or read “blasphemous” content. What a shame that their government, acting like a strict Muslim parent, won’t let them!

h/t: Grania

38 Comments

  1. Posted January 13, 2019 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    > If Pakistan wants to censor something because it violates local law, let them censor it, but don’t make American countries complicit in the censorship.

    Exactly this. American companies should be held to Enlightenment standards.

  2. GBJames
    Posted January 13, 2019 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    sub

  3. DrBrydon
    Posted January 13, 2019 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    Jerry, the percentage of Indian take-down requests that were for religious offence is 12%; the 37% is for defamation.

    • Posted January 13, 2019 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

      Yes, I’ve corrected the errors, simply by eliminating most figures and referring to Michael’s correct figure below. I plead 4:30 a.m. writing with no coffee.

  4. DrBrydon
    Posted January 13, 2019 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    Yes, I also don’t like the idea of a US company acting as the censor for foreign governments. They do it, of course, so that they can keep doing business in those countries, but that just raises the question of what their priorities are. (Hint: they are public companies, so their priority is money.) At the same time, given what we’ve seen about how moderation policies are actually enforced (too many issues, not enough people, poor AI), I think it’s fair to assume that they err on the side of error.

    • Posted January 13, 2019 at 11:44 am | Permalink

      I don’t know the social media companies’ motivation here but it seems unfair to assume that it is 100% about making money. Even with the censorship, which is evil, isn’t there a net good achieved by having these social media services available in these countries?

      In general, I believe engagement is the way to go. Eventually these countries will change their religious and authoritarian ways. At least engagement is our best hope.

      • DrBrydon
        Posted January 13, 2019 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

        Happy Sunday, Paul. I usually do not assume pure greed on the part of companies. I considered the net good argument, but I am not sure social media constitutes engagement. After all, this is not Voice of America. From a content perspective, I don’t think we can say that social media has a necessarily positive benefit, especially if it is being censored.

        • Posted January 14, 2019 at 11:20 am | Permalink

          No, social media is not Voice of America, which is often viewed as state-sponsored propaganda. Instead, social media shows normal people interacting without much censorship. It demonstrates freedom in action. IMHO, people focus on the bad side of social media with its trolls and extremists that they seem to forget all the good it does. Censorship is a negative but definitely doesn’t bring its value to zero. Besides all the useful content that doesn’t get censored, it raises awareness of censorship. It is better to receive censored info than no info at all or propaganda.

          • rickflick
            Posted January 14, 2019 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

            Googling alone is worth the bad side.

  5. rickflick
    Posted January 13, 2019 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    I would think there are ways these censors could block pages from inside the country, no? Why bother to involve the host organization?

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted January 13, 2019 at 11:46 am | Permalink

      I suspect because then there would be ways for people to work around the blocking.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted January 13, 2019 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

      That is relatively easy to get round using a Virtual Private Network (VPN). For which there are many other fully legitimate uses, and many thousands of providers.

      • JezGrove
        Posted January 13, 2019 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

        Unfortunately, regardless of however many legitimate uses of VPNs there are, using them, according to Human Rights Watch, can result in indefinite internment in China’s Xinjiang province (as can simply receiving an international phone call). Western governments, yet alone their companies, turn a blind eye to China’s extreme censorship and human rights abuses.

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted January 15, 2019 at 8:35 am | Permalink

          Plenty of countries don’t like them, for a variety of reasons. Likewise they’re a major minefield for companies managing their crew’s internet access at remote locations. When someone starts using a VPN and hogging 50% of the bandwidth, then someone needs to figure out what is going on – which is a task that has fallen to me in the past.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted January 13, 2019 at 5:53 pm | Permalink

      International ‘optics’ matter too – how a country appears to the rest of the world. Thus Russia [see my list at the bottom of comment #11] is keen to control the narrative everywhere not just at home.

      If a country blocks pages/sites it’s harder to spot ones own dissidents who go deeper underground. A smart operator would allow as much chatter as possible & then listen hard, but no large nation state does this [Israel?], only some orgs do. Countries tend to be rather stupid, ponderous beasts – like the time the PRC decided to block GitHub. 🙂

      • rickflick
        Posted January 13, 2019 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

        “A smart operator would allow as much chatter as possible…”

        Pretty sneaky. Have you considered hiring yourself out to a stupid, ponderous, beast?

        • Michael Fisher
          Posted January 13, 2019 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

          It’s intelligence SOP – nothing new. But the politicians insist on using the intelligence toys in the wrong, self-interested & nannying way – burning up the potential golden goose for short term glory. e.g. the deluge of info in the media re the methods employed to track & kill ObL should never, ever have been made public.

          Getting social media to suppress bullshit & hate is as pointless & unwinnable as booze prohibition was.

          • rickflick
            Posted January 13, 2019 at 10:06 pm | Permalink

            “burning up the potential golden goose for short term glory.”
            Sounds much like the proverbial shooing oneself in the foot.

  6. W.T. Effingham
    Posted January 13, 2019 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    As a Geology (amateur) enthusiast, Pakistan appeals to me with its rich variety of mineral resources. As a casual observer of current social events,Pakistan is an enigma.Where do most intelligent Pakistanis reside nowadays? Not Pakistan. These mind – numbing Thought Control Policies are not 21st century friendly. This is self-inflicted Braindrain.

    • CAS
      Posted January 13, 2019 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

      Lots of smart, liberal Pakistanis in Pakistan but the 20% of the population that are Islamist radicals have put the fear of Allah into government officials. Officials have been murdered for opposing their religious agenda.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted January 13, 2019 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

      It has always been considered a dangerous posting, and for a number of years outside companies have been avoiding sending their own employees there, instead having local subsidiaries employing natives. It’s one of the countries where I’d think four or five times before accepting work.

  7. Randall Schenck
    Posted January 13, 2019 at 11:19 am | Permalink

    The other side of the coin is of course the evil word regulation. How many who use the internet demand total unregulation. The internet firms themselves promote open access and no government regulation. We will never get a handle on what goes on around the world if we do not have it right here in our country. What the Russians have been able to do and are still doing is far more dangerous and I hear nothing much about it. Trump denies it of course since he works for them but what is anyone else demanding.

  8. Julian C
    Posted January 13, 2019 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    The numbers seem to be off — in any case, 143 isn’t 17% of 5,308. I may have misinterpreted the data on the Google site, but it would also appear that there were more removal requests from the US than from India

    • Posted January 13, 2019 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

      Yes, as I said above, I made some mistakes which are now corrected in the post, and reader Michael gives the correct figures below. My bad.

  9. Ken Kukec
    Posted January 13, 2019 at 11:38 am | Permalink

    And once the Indian government issued a police warning to me because I re-posted the tweet of a blogger showing a drawing of statue of the Hindu god Ganesha in Mecca (horrors!). I had to remove that post lest I face arrest when I went to India for a seminar trip.

    I think you should’ve left that one up, boss, in solidarity with the Indian people. I seriously doubt the Indian government would’ve had the stones to pinch a distinguished Western academic. And had they, you’d’ve had your chance to write a blistering Letter-from-Birmingham-Jail in support of free expression — one worthy of a Voltaire.

    (And if worse came to worst, we WEITers would’ve crowd-funded enough dough to hire Charles Bronson to come break you out. 🙂 )

    • Posted January 13, 2019 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

      In Jerry’s place, I would have done the same thing. For a start I wouldn’t want to take the risk that the Indian government would not arrest me just because I were distinguished. And I’m pretty sure that the inside of an Indian prison is not at all pleasant.

      Also, Charles Bronson is on sabbatical from life and so would probably be ineffective in an escape attempt.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted January 13, 2019 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

        Bronson, gone? Next thing, you’ll be telling me Voltaire is, too.

        The good men do isn’t always interred with their bones, pace Marc Antony. 🙂

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted January 13, 2019 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

      I seriously doubt the Indian government would’ve had the stones to pinch a distinguished Western academic.

      I suspect the concern of the Indian government is (was) actually the fear of having a moderately prominent foreigner murdered in their jurisdiction, and the ensuing bad PR until the mess died down.

      you’d’ve had your chance to write a blistering Letter-from-Birmingham-Jail in support of free expression — one worthy of a Voltaire.

      Reading Gaol, wasn’t it? Wilde.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted January 13, 2019 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

        Some of the greatest world literature has been written from a prison cell — from Walter Raleigh to Dostoevsky, from Jean Genet to Solzhenitsyn.

        Of course, there’s been some stinkers, too, like that one by the fella in Landsberg prison.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted January 13, 2019 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

        Also, the “Birmingham” referenced was to the one in Alabama rather than the English Midlands. 🙂

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted January 15, 2019 at 8:40 am | Permalink

          Something to do with the Civil Rights attempt, I guess – Alabama being involved?

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted January 13, 2019 at 5:57 pm | Permalink

      Let’s not forget the English Charles Bronson

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted January 13, 2019 at 8:09 pm | Permalink

        Didn’t know about that one. Him, I’d rather see stay in stir.

    • Posted January 13, 2019 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

      I had already accepted an invitation to lecture in five Indian cities when this occurred, and my friends in India checked with lawyers, who told me I could indeed be arrested if I didn’t take the picture down. Because it was more important to me to speak to Indian students than to risk jail (Indian jails are dredful places) in this way, I relented. But I didn’t feel good about it.

  10. CAS
    Posted January 13, 2019 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    “unlawful online content”
    Freedom is a bitch! And Islam is not friendly to women!

  11. Michael Fisher
    Posted January 13, 2019 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

    Your figures are wrong Jerry. The tables & bar graphs you’ve used display 6-month periods. The tables display only one chosen 6-month period at a time & you can change the particular period of six months from the drop-down menu above each table.

    OP:

    “government takedown requests […] there have been about 8,000 of these in the last four years”

    ** The correct global figure for that 4 year period is much higher at 92,249 as per below

    GLOBAL BREAKDOWN:
    2018/06 25,543
    2017/12 16,617
    2017/06 19,176
    2016/12 15,961
    2016/06 6,554
    2015/12 4,931
    2015/06 3,467

    OP:

    “Of these 8,000 requests, 292 were from Pakistan with 61% of the requests for religious offense”

    ** 292 requests is for the period from 2009
    ** the correct figures for four years is 274 [174 religious offence or 64%]

    PAKISTAN BREAKDOWN:
    2018/06 196 [119 for religious offence or 61%]
    2017/12 27 [14 or 52%]
    2017/06 14 [10 or 71%]
    2016/12 6 [5 or 83%]
    2016/06 30 [26 or 87%]
    2015/12 1 [0 or 0%]
    2015/06 0 [0 or 0%]

    OP:

    “5,308 takedown requests came from India, by far the most censorious country, with 37% of those, or 143, requested because they caused “religious offense”

    ** It’s 5,308 since 2009
    ** 143 religious offence is only for the 2018/06 interval NOT the period from 2009. In that 6 month interval there were 1,190 removal requests from India
    ** 143 is 12% of 1,190 requests not 37%
    ** India is far from being the most censorious country:

    TAKEDOWN REQUESTS TOTALS BY COUNTRY [2009 to 2018] – Sample list

    Russia: 61,471
    USA: 7,964
    India: 5,308
    UK: 3,894
    France: 2,291
    Israel: 1,436
    Canada: 768
    China: 627
    Pakistan: 292
    Indonesia: 171
    UAE: 137
    Poland: 104
    Saud: 85
    New Zealand: 81
    Iran: 3
    Palestine: 1
    Vatican: 1 [for impersonation]

    • Posted January 13, 2019 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

      Yes, thank you, Michael. I’ve done an update, eliminating the erroneous figures, referring to this comment, and adding one or two figures that you gave here.

  12. Diane G
    Posted January 14, 2019 at 12:19 am | Permalink

    sub


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