Which government censors online data the most

In 2009, Google started recording the number of content removal requests it received from courts and government agencies all over the world, disclosing the figures on a six-month basis. Soon after, several other companies followed suit, including Twitter, Facebook, Microsoft, and Wikimedia.

Here at Comparitech, we’ve collated all of this data to find out which governments censor online content the most and which channels are targeted by each government.

What did we find?

Some governments avidly try to control online data, whether this is on social media, blogs, or both. And surprisingly, China only features in the top 10 for one category. Find out why below.

Top 20 countries by number of content removal requests

Below are the top 20 countries based on their overall number of content requests across all channels.

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  1. India – 77,620
  2. Russia – 77,162
  3. Turkey – 63,585
  4. France – 49,971
  5. Mexico – 25,036
  6. Brazil – 17,346
  7. Germany – 13,366
  8. Pakistan – 9,771
  9. United States – 9,574
  10. United Kingdom – 6,402
  11. Israel – 5,527
  12. South Korea – 4,445
  13. China – 4,374
  14. Italy – 3,867
  15. Austria – 2,928
  16. Japan – 2,138
  17. Vietnam – 1,964
  18. Thailand – 1,901
  19. Spain – 1,592
  20. Argentina – 1,575

India and Russia are well ahead, accounting for 19.86 and 19.75 percent of the overall number of removal requests (390,764), respectively.

However, these two countries don’t always dominate the top spots across all channels, as we can see below.

Top 20 countries by number of Google content removal requests

Below are the top 20 countries by the number of requests put through to Google from July 2009 to July 2018.

Russia dominates the top spot with 61,471 requests in total. This is 53.31 percent of the overall requests received from all countries (115,301).

Turkey and the United States also put in a high number of requests, making up 9 percent and 6.91 percent of the overall requests received, respectively.

  1. Russia – 61,471
  2. Turkey – 10,379
  3. United States – 7,964
  4. Brazil – 6,455
  5. India – 5,308
  6. United Kingdom – 3,894
  7. Germany – 3,197
  8. France – 2,291
  9. South Korea – 2,098
  10. Italy – 1,691
  11. Israel – 1,436
  12. Spain – 1,065
  13. Canada – 768
  14. Argentina – 737
  15. Japan – 720
  16. China – 627
  17. Thailand – 575
  18. Australia – 393
  19. Netherlands – 304
  20. Pakistan – 292

What kind of content removal requests is Google receiving?

Some examples include:

  • Russia: “We received a request from Roskomnadzor to remove a Blogger blog post containing several separate articles advancing a conspiracy theory that the U.S. wants to break up Russian territory into separate countries, sterilize and destroy Slavic peoples, and launch a nuclear attack against Russia.” – the post was removed from blogspot.ru (Jul-Dec, 2017).
  • Turkey: “We received a court order to remove 2 Google Groups posts, 2 Blogger posts, 1 Blogger image, and an entire Blogger blog publishing political caricatures of a very senior Government official of Turkey.” – the content was not removed (Jul-Dec, 2016).
  • United States: “We received a court order requesting removal of dozens of pages written by a blogger about a local state scandal involving state politicians.” – the content was not removed (Jan-Jun, 2014).

Google also provides information on the reason behind each government request and the product involved (please note: Google only started tracking this from July 2010).

The top reasons for removal are national security (29.74% of total), defamation (17.83% of total), and regulated goods and services (12.72% of total). Russia made over 88 percent of the overall requests relating to national security and over 97 percent of the requests relating to regulated goods and services. The US made nearly 24 percent of the requests relating to defamation. 36.79 percent of Turkey’s removal requests related to defamation.

Blogger.com, web searches, and YouTube are all prime targets for these removal requests.

Of all the requests, 11,959 (10.57%) relate to Blogger, 23,067 (20.40%) relate to web searches, and 60,816 (53.78%) relate to YouTube.

For YouTube, the top reason was national security with 46.76% of all the requests. For web searches, defamation was a top request (45.81%). And for Blogger, defamation was also the top reason for requests (30.33% of all), but drug abuse (19.75%) and obscenity/nudity (17.12%) were top reasons, too.

Which year saw the most Google content removal requests?

The biggest jump in content removal requests came in 2016 when there was a 168.13 percent increase in the number of requests (22,515 in total). This is primarily due to the large 378 percent increase from Russia (increasing from 2,761 in 2015 to 13,209 in 2016). Most of these requests (79.26%) from Russia related to national security with 98% of these requests involving YouTube.

Despite this big increase, this wasn’t Russia’s biggest year for content removal requests. This came in 2017 when it made 23,823 requests (an 80 percent increase year on year). Again, national security was a top priority here, making up nearly 70 percent of its overall requests. Furthermore, within the first six months of 2018, Russia had made 19,192 content removal requests, suggesting that when Google releases the remaining figures for last year, there will be an even bigger increase in these figures.

This is also true of the overall number of content requests as 2017 was the biggest year for these with 35,793 requests in total. And by June 2018, there had already been 25,534 requests made.

Top 20 countries by number of Twitter content removal requests

Below are the top 20 countries by the number of requests put through to Twitter from January 2012 to July 2018.

These requests cover the legal demands to remove content received by Twitter. They do not cover requests by government officials based solely on Twitter Rules because the report does not offer a country-by-country breakdown for those.

  1. Turkey – 30,183
  2. Russia – 11,570
  3. France – 3,807
  4. India – 1,406
  5. Japan – 1,375
  6. Germany – 927
  7. Indonesia – 857
  8. South Korea – 822
  9. United States – 798
  10. United Kingdom – 600
  11. Pakistan – 592
  12. Brazil – 436
  13. United Arab Emirates – 264
  14. Mongolia – 117
  15. Spain – 99
  16. Canada – 74
  17. Netherlands – 58
  18. Ireland – 53
  19. Australia – 47
  20. Malaysia – 43

Turkey jumps into the top spot here, accounting for 55.23 percent of the overall number of requests (54,652). Russia is a distant second with 21.17 percent of the overall number.

What kind of content removal requests is Twitter receiving?

  • Turkey: “We received a court order demanding removal of 24 allegedly defamatory Tweets related to a book written about the owner of a well-known construction company in Turkey. Upon review, 17 Tweets had already been deleted by the users and 1 account did not exist. We objected to the court order for the remainder of the reported content on the basis of its newsworthiness, and prevailed. Therefore we took no further action.” (Jul-Dec 2018)
  • Russia: “We received the first Periscope removal request from Roskomnadzor concerning a prisoner’s account. Citing Article 82 of the Russian Criminal Executive Code, the reporter asked us to ‘block the account from which the violating broadcast was made’. However, the reported account had no broadcasts, so we did not take any action.” (Jan-Jun 2017)
  • France: “We withheld one Tweet in response to a legal demand from the Office Central de Lutte contre la Criminalité liée aux Technologies de l’Information et de la Communication (OCLCTIC) for glorification of terrorist attacks.” (Jul-Dec 2017)

Which year saw the most Twitter content removal requests?

The biggest jump in Twitter content removal requests came in 2013 when there were 435 removal requests (an 806 percent increase on 2012’s 48 requests). The majority of these requests (312 or 72%) came from France.

However, the largest number of content removal requests came last year with 23,464 (an 84% increase on the previous year). In this instance, France only made up just over 1 percent of the requests. Rather, it was Russia and Turkey who made up 21.25 and 59.67 percent of the requests in 2018, respectively.

Again, we can clearly see ongoing growth in the number of content requests being made with significant jumps most years except for from 2016 to 2017 when there was only a 14.54 percent increase in the number of requests being made.

Top 20 countries by number of Facebook content removal requests

Below are the top 20 countries by the number of requests put through to Facebook from July 2013 to December 2018.

  1. India – 70,815
  2. France – 42,989
  3. Mexico – 24,872
  4. Turkey – 23,002
  5. Brazil – 10,418
  6. Pakistan – 8,881
  7. Germany – 8,846
  8. Israel – 4,054
  9. Russia – 3,876
  10. Austria – 2,817
  11. Italy – 2,048
  12. Vietnam – 1,843
  13. South Korea – 1,496
  14. Thailand – 1,319
  15. United Kingdom – 1,198
  16. Argentina – 803
  17. Spain – 392
  18. Indonesia – 381
  19. Netherlands – 329
  20. Australia – 323

This is where the vast majority of India’s government content removal requests go (91.23 percent of their total of 77,620). India accounts for 33.33 percent of the overall number of Facebook removal requests (212,496), while second-place France accounts for 20.23 percent.

Oddly, the US doesn’t feature here at all. The report suggests a country might not make the list either because Facebook’s services aren’t available there or there haven’t been any items of this type to report. The US doesn’t fall into the former, but the latter doesn’t seem likely either, especially when you consider the United States’s removal requests across other platforms. Furthermore, there is a case study (like the ones depicted below) for the US, which suggests:

“We received a request from a county prosecutor’s office to remove a page opposing a county animal control agency, alleging that the page made threatening comments about the director of the agency and violated laws against menacing.” Facebook reviewed the page and found there to be no credible threats so it, therefore, didn’t violate their Community Standards. (Oct 2015)

What kind of content removal requests is Facebook receiving?

  • India: “We received a request from law enforcement in India to remove a photo that depicted a sketch of the Prophet Mohammed.” – The content didn’t violate Facebook’s Community Standards but was made unavailable in India where any depiction of Mohammed is forbidden. (Jun 2016)
  • France: “Following the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, we received a request from L’Office Central de Lutte Contre la Criminalité Liée aux Technologies de l’Information et de la Communication (OCLCTIC), a division of French law enforcement, to remove a number of instances of a photo taken inside the Bataclan concert venue depicting the remains of several victims. The photo was alleged to violate French laws related to protecting human dignity.” – The content didn’t violate Facebook’s Community Standards but 32,100 instances of the photo were restricted in France. It was still available in other countries. (Nov 2015)
  • Mexico: “We received a request from COFEPRIS, the Mexican Federal Commission for the Protection Against Sanitary Risk, alleging a page and profile were engaged in the unauthorised sale of regulated goods.” – The content didn’t violate Facebook’s Community Standards but was restricted in Mexico. (Sep 2017)

Which year saw the most Facebook content removal requests?

The largest increase in the number of content removal requests on Facebook came in 2015: a 313.37 percent increase over the previous year from 18,481 to 76,395. France made the biggest number of requests in 2015, accounting for nearly 50 percent of all the requests. As we can see from the example above, it’s highly likely most of these related to the terrorist attack in France as the majority of these requests were made in the second half of the year (the attack occurred in November 2015).

2015 was also the biggest year for content removal requests with a significant drop of 78 percent coming in 2016. Since then, however, the number of requests has continued to grow, with a 155 percent increase from 2016 to 2017 and a 21 percent increase from 2017 to 2018.

Top 10 countries by number of Microsoft content removal requests

Below are the top 10 countries by the number of requests put through to Microsoft from January 2015 to December 2018. As only 19 countries in total made requests to Microsoft since they started reporting in 2015, we have only created a top 10 list here.

This covers requests from governments for claims such as violations of Microsoft’s terms of use or the country’s local laws. It doesn’t cover individual “right to be forgotten” requests, requests for the removal of nonconsensual pornography (revenge porn), or copyright requests (the latter isn’t provided on a country-by-country basis).

  1. China – 3,732
  2. France – 685
  3. United Kingdom – 535
  4. Russia – 179
  5. Netherlands – 94
  6. Germany – 91
  7. United States – 15
  8. Belgium – 13
  9. Australia – 7
  10. India – 6

China is the clear leader here with 3,732 requests over 4 years, accounting for 69.46 percent of the total (5,373). France again takes the second spot with 12.75 percent of the requests.

Unfortunately, Microsoft doesn’t offer any examples relating to the requests it receives.

Which year saw the most Microsoft content removal requests?

The biggest jump in removal requests on Microsoft came in 2016 when there was a 300 percent increase on the year before. The majority of these requests (418 or 62%) came from China. However, it was in 2018 when China made the most requests (1,645 in total – 44% of its overall requests since Microsoft began reporting).

2018 was also the biggest year for the number of requests with 2,055 in total.

Furthermore, despite a dip in the number of removal requests in 2017 (a drop of nearly 18% from the year before), there was a significant increase (56%) again last year.

Top 20 countries by number of Wikimedia content removal requests

Below are the top 20 countries by the number of requests submitted to Wikimedia from July 2012 to December 2018. Wikimedia’s transparency reports cover all content removal requests received, including those from individuals and companies, not just governments.

What is particularly interesting about these Wikimedia content removal requests is that they are hardly ever actioned. According to the report, the only content removal request accepted was from Ukraine in 2014.  A blogger included a photo of his visa to visit Burma/Myanmar on his website. He had scrubbed his personal details from the image. The same picture later appeared on English Wikipedia in an article about the country’s visa policy. The redactions were removed and his information exposed. Given the nature of the information and the circumstances of how it was exposed, Wikimedia granted the takedown request.

  1. United States – 797
  2. Germany – 305*
  3. France – 199
  4. United Kingdom – 175
  5. Italy – 89
  6. India – 85
  7. Russia – 66
  8. Canada – 52
  9. Japan – 42
  10. Australia – 41
  11. Netherlands – 37
  12. Brazil – 37
  13. Spain – 36
  14. South Korea – 27
  15. Poland – 24
  16. Switzerland – 21
  17. Austria – 20
  18. Turkey – 19
  19. Czech Republic – 16
  20. Norway – 15

*“Unknown” countries made up 580 of the content removal requests so should be in second place instead of Germany. However, as we don’t have any indication as to what these countries are and cannot compare them, we have omitted them from the top 20 but not from the overall counts.

The United States has the most content removal requests, accounting for 27.09 percent of the total (2,942). Germany, in second place, takes 10.37 percent of the total.

What kind of content removal requests is Wikimedia receiving?

  • United States: “A lawyer reached out to us on behalf of a lesser-known North American political party that was unhappy with edits to English Wikipedia articles about the party and one of its leaders. Her clients apparently wanted previous, more promotional versions of the articles restored in place of the later versions. To better engage in discussions with the community, we encouraged them to familiarize themselves with Wikipedia’s recommendations on style and tone and the policy restricting use of promotional language. We also advised that one of the best ways to resolve their concerns is to engage with the community directly.” (Mar 2015)
  • France: “A French intelligence agency summoned a Wikipedia user to its offices, and threatened him with severe criminal penalties if he did not use his administrative rights to delete information about a military base from French Wikipedia that the agency deemed classified. The supposedly classified information was actually publicly available because the military had provided interviews and a tour of the base to local reporters. We defended the user involved and fought to keep the content up on Wikipedia.” (Mar 2013)
  • Turkey: “We occasionally receive requests from governments to remove content that those governments may find offensive—even content that is perfectly legal elsewhere. In April, we received an email from the Information and Communication Technologies Authority of the Turkish government, claiming that the Turkish Wikipedia article on Müşfik diktatörlük (benevolent dictatorship) violated Turkish law. We rejected the request, and offered to pass the message on to Turkish Wikipedia volunteers. The projects belong to the contributors, readers, and other members of the Wikimedia communities, and we believe that where possible they should decide what content belongs on the projects.” (Apr 2016)

Which year saw the most Wikimedia content removal requests?

2017 saw the biggest increase in requests on Wikimedia (a 144% growth). The majority of these requests (22%) came from the US.

2018 was the biggest year for content removal requests, though, with 880 in total. Again, the US made up the largest proportion of these (18.18%).

Which governments are censoring content the most?

While India takes the top spot for the overall number of content removal requests, as we have seen, the majority of these come from Facebook. Therefore, while the Indian government is clearly censoring Facebook (and is actively censoring other platforms, too), other countries appear to be censoring in larger volumes across all platforms.

These are Russia, Turkey, and France – those in second, third, and fourth place in our overall top 20.

Russia only seems to hold back on its Facebook and Wikimedia content removal requests (coming ninth and seventh overall, respectively) as it tops the Google list, comes second on the Twitter list, and fourth on the Microsoft list. As we have seen, Russia seems to prioritize things like national security and regulated goods and services.

Turkey only seems to drop out of the top four when it comes to Microsoft removal requests (12th) and Wikimedia removal requests (18th), coming second in the Google rankings, top in the Twitter standings, and fourth for Facebook. Thanks to Google’s in-depth report and some of the examples offered by other platforms we can see that Turkey is largely concerned with defamation but also puts forward quite a few requests relating to obscenity/nudity and privacy and security.

France may be the biggest surprise here as it isn’t necessarily regarded as a “politically controlling” country. It ranks 25/100 in the Freedom on the Net rankings and is thought of as being “free” with a 6/35 score for its limits on content. In comparison, Russia and Turkey rank 67th and 66th, respectively, with both being classed “not free”. Russia’s limits on content scored 24/35 and Turkey scored 25/35.

So why does the French government seem to be making so many content removal requests?

Again, if we refer back to the Google report and some of the examples, we can see that national security is a huge priority. Furthermore, we can see spikes in some content removal requests following the terrorist attacks in 2015. For example, France made 37,695 requests to Facebook in the July to December period of that year, a 12,677 percent increase on the first half of the year.

What about China’s lower rankings across every category but Microsoft?

China often does not bother with going through content providers and their in-house reporting mechanisms to censor content. It simply blocks entire sites and apps outright, forcing internet service providers to bar access on behalf of the government. China has banned all of the websites we have used in this comparison, except some of Microsoft’s services, so few censorship requests are required.