Jun 19, 2012 · 7 minutes

For Westerners who enjoy living in democracies, it’s easy to answer the question of whether or not censorship is desirable. It is not. But in China, which doesn’t respect free speech, that’s not an especially useful question. A more uncomfortable question would be: Just how different is China’s censorship from ours?

New data released by Google as part of its Transparency Report shows that government agencies in many Western democracies have asked the company to remove political content that users had posted to its services. “It’s alarming not only because free expression is at risk, but because some of these requests come from countries you might not suspect – Western democracies not typically associated with censorship,” wrote Google policy analyst Dorothy Chou in a blog post yesterday.

In the second half of last year, for example, US agencies asked Google to remove 6,192 individual pieces of content from its search results, blog posts, or archives of online videos – a 718 percent increase from the first half of the year. During the same time period, US law enforcement agencies lodged 187 take-down requests, including one related to a blog post that “allegedly defamed a law enforcement official in a personal capacity.”

Google received numerous similar requests from Spain, Italy, Australia, Germany, Poland, Canada, and others. It did not comply with most of them, but the company did act in response to 42 percent of removal requests from the US in the second half of 2011.

Google was also at the center of the highest-profile censorship debate related to China. In 2010, much was made of the company’s partial withdrawal from the country in response to what it said was “a sophisticated cyber attack” that targeted the Gmail accounts of dozens of China-connected human rights activists. No sane person would contend that such hacking was justified. But few could feign surprise. Government surveillance of its citizens is an unfortunate fact of life not just in China, but also in other, supposedly free countries. The Bush Administration’s warrantless wiretapping program, a huge breach of privacy and human rights conducted with the cooperation of major telcos, is the most obvious example of that.

Supporters of that wiretapping program, carried out as part of that embarrassment to freedom known as the Patriot Act, might protest that it was conducted in the name of stamping out terrorism, and that casting such a wide net – monitoring thousands of innocent Americans – was justified for the good of the country. The CCP would argue, too, that their surveillance is also for the good of the country. That is particularly true when it comes to the sensitive topic of spreading online rumors.

Just last weekend, it demonstrated how seriously it takes that by arresting two people for spreading rumors that a cloud of pollution over the city of Wuhan was caused by an explosion at a chemical plant that leaked toxic gases. “Spreading rumors” falls into one of the nine categories of information that the government deems “harmful” and therefore bans. As we all know, it also has no qualms about blocking specific news sites and thwarting searches for key terms (three of which begin with the letter “T”).

As it turns out, those nine naughty categories actually look pretty reasonable on paper, if you put aside the small matter of free speech. The government doesn’t want people inciting uprisings, breaking the constitution, promoting hatred or discrimination, spreading rumors that compromise the order of society, promoting violence, or – and this one might sound familiar – inciting terrorism.

Of course, it’s how those rules are interpreted that really matters – just as how that’s what mattered when Bush decided the Constitution allowed him to spy on Americans. Or how the US State Department decided it was okay to pressure PayPal to block WikiLeaks’ account. Or how Obama interpreted the law in such a way as to justify the execution of American citizens without due process.

Western political commentators often associate those abuses of power with the word “troubling." If they happened in China, they would use the word “outrageous."

But while those are examples of authoritarianism writ large, the idea of censorship feeds down the pipe to even the most mundane walks of life. My colleague Andrew James yesterday wrote of Reddit’s decision to block certain sites from posting on its site. For the record, I love Reddit and think it is right to implement the change. But its rationale for doing so is analogous to China’s justification for censorship, in general.

Some news organizations – such as Business Week, The Atlantic, and Science Daily – have been gaming Reddit’s up-vote system in order to get more attention for their content. Because such behavior compromises the integrity of Reddit’s system, it is harmful to the wider community. So Reddit’s overlords decided to curtail free speech in its community in order to optimize the quality of the experience. It might be a little cheeky to point out that China uses exactly the same rationale to “protect” its community, but that doesn’t mean the comparison is worthless.

Before I get too carried away, let me say this: Censorship and human rights violations in the US don’t even come close to those in China, where they are a daily occurrence and the consequences can be severe. And I am not seriously equating censorship at Reddit with Communist China, where police might bang your door down for something you posted online. I personally hate that I can’t even post this to WordPress without having to operate behind the sluggish safety of a VPN. But it is too simplistic and short-sighted to moralize about the evils of China’s Internet censorship without taking a long, hard look at ourselves.

Internet censorship in China is a tool of governance as much as it is a tool for surveillance. To say that it is done only in the name of maintaining a “harmonious” society would be taking it too easy on the authorities. But to say that it is done only in the name of denying its citizens expression and freedom of dissent would be equally wrong.

Yes, the government blocked online Tiananmen-related chatter on the anniversary of the massacre, but it has always done that. Which is not to justify it. Let me reiterate: Censorship is bad – very, very bad – and China has an abysmal record on human rights.

What is more interesting, however, is that citizens by and large are allowed to embark on anti-government rants on the likes of Sina Weibo, which is kind of like a blend of Facebook and Twitter. This is a minor but positive development in the still-unfolding history of China’s Internet. It might be that the government has discovered it needs to take a more nuanced approach to online censorship, or it might just be that it is more relaxed about criticism than many people give it credit for.

Even tighter regulations on real-name registration are unlikely to stem the flow of anti-government comments from a relatively exercised netizenry. Why? The numbers. As the authors of the blog Tea Leaf Nation commented in a recent interview, “the biggest ‘loophole’ in the censorship system is the sheer volume of information on microblogs. Once the officials are on to you, they can censor you or block you, but with millions of accounts sending out tens of millions of tweets each day and an infinite number of ways to encode information, it’s hard for the censors to keep up.”

As much as I consider the concept of free speech sacred, if you’re not going to commit to it, then by necessity you have to implement controls. China is not concerned about free speech. Indeed, it has been open about choosing the censorship route. That’s not how I’d choose to run a country, but I’m not responsible for the well-being of 1.3 billion people who have been living through intense economic growth and warp-speed modernization in the last three decades. The US and other Western democracies, meanwhile, have been less transparent about the ways in which they attempt to control speech.

It’s too easy to point to China and say Internet censorship is evil. As with everything in modern China, the issue demands a much more nuanced understanding. We can get there by more closely scrutinizing our own countries. To do that, a good place to start is by looking at those findings from Google’s Transparency Report.

Here’s Google’s policy analyst Dorothy Chou again:

Unfortunately, what we’ve seen over the past couple years has been troubling, and today is no different. When we started releasing this data in 2010, we also added annotations with some of the more interesting stories behind the numbers. We noticed that government agencies from different countries would sometimes ask us to remove political content that our users had posted on our services. We hoped this was an aberration. But now we know it’s not.