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This article was published on January 22, 2012

Is Google selectively censoring content on its blogging platform, Blogger?

Is Google selectively censoring content on its blogging platform, Blogger?
Nancy Messieh
Story by

Nancy Messieh

Lesotho-born and raised, Nancy Messieh, The Next Web's Middle East Editor, is an Egyptian writer and photographer based in Cairo, Egypt. Fol Lesotho-born and raised, Nancy Messieh, The Next Web's Middle East Editor, is an Egyptian writer and photographer based in Cairo, Egypt. Follow her on Twitter, her site or Google+ or get in touch at [email protected]

Today, Egyptian blogger and activist Ramy Raoof shared a post on his blog in which he called Google out for censoring one of his Blogger posts, based on what they called copyright violations.

In his post, Raoof shared the details of the situation, including his correspondence with Google. On December 19, he posted an entry entitled “Military Forces Attack on Female Protesters”.

He has since restored the post, which contains five photographs, documenting incidents where women were assaulted by the Egyptian army. Each photograph is clearly marked with its copyright notice, with the images belonging to, according to Raoof, Reuters, AP, AFP, StockPix and The Daily Mail.

On December 21, he received a ‘Blogger Blog takedown notification’ which read:

Blogger has been notified, according to the terms of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), that certain content on your blog is alleged to infringe on the copyright of others. As a result, we have reset the post(s) to “draft” status. If we did not do so, we would be subject to a claim of copyright infringement, regardless of its merits.

It went on to say:

The email that we received, with any personally identifying information removed, will be posted online by a service called Chilling Effects at http://chillingeffects.org. We do this in accordance with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). You can search for the DMCA notice associated with the removal of your content by going to the Chilling Effects page at http://chillingeffects.org and entering in the URL of the blog post that was removed.

Searching for the DMCA notice on Chilling Effects turned up nothing. Raoof contacted Google three times on December 22, 27 and January 10:

I sent them 3 emails asking for more information on the DMCA notice filed against. In their email they said according to DMCA the notice should be available on Chilling Effects with all necessary information, and I never found it and they never replied to any of my emails.

On January 14, well over three weeks since receiving the noitce from Google, Raoof sent them a fourth email. He writes:

I sent them the 4th email and last one informing them if the DMCA notice wasn’t made public and if they didn’t respond to me I am going to republish the post again. As the notice they claim to be filled against me was never made available to me or on the Chilling Effects website as it should be, and consequentially the DMCA notice became doubtful.

With no response from Google, true to his word, on January 22, Raoof restored the post, which is currently available here. The Next Web contacted Raoof for a comment on the situation, and he told us:

The concept and process are flawed. It doesn’t respect bloggers who are using the Blogger.com service and doesn’t pay enough attention to the complaints procedures.

He goes on to say that his is not the first incident of his kind:

We have cases for Flickr, YouTube and now Blogger. Usually censorship takes place by governments, and companies are helping them.

The incidents Raoof refers to include Flickr’s decision in March 2011 to remove an entire set of photographs posted by Egyptian activist Hossam El Hamalawy, also known as Arabawy.

On his blog, Hamalawy posted the take down notice he received from Flickr. It was in connection with  a set of photographs that he found when Egyptian protesters stormed the Egyptian State Security Headquarters in Cairo. Flickr deleted the images, citing copyright infringement.

In 2007, Google suspended the YouTube account of Egyptian blogger and activist Wael Abbas, who used it to document the torture and abuses that were taking place at the hands of Egyptian police.

A pattern of selective censorship

While the reasons for taking down the content in the three cases listed above are slightly different, the common thread in all three stories is the fact that activists have accused companies like Google and Yahoo of playing an active role in censorship.

Flickr cited a copyright violation when removing Hamalawy’s images, but photographer Thomas Hawk commented at the time:

Personally I think that this is one giant cop out on Flickr’s part. Flickr knows that Flickr is *full* of photos that are “not a member’s work.” In fact Flickr staff themselves routinely upload photos to their own personal photostreams that are “not their work.”

The same can easily be said of Blogger. There are doubtless thousands of copyright violations floating all over Bloggers pages. In fact, visiting one of the blogs listed on Blogger’s very own Blogs of Note, we came across an image shared on a post which belongs to Reuters.

One of the images that Raoof used in his blog post belonged to Reuters. Are companies like Yahoo and Google quietly bowing down to pressure to take an active role in censorship? When the photos were removed from Hamalawy’s Flickr account, Hawk wrote:

Withdrawing Arabawy’s photos of suspected torturers by citing a technicality that the photos were not “his own work,” is disingenuous. The photos were pulled because Flickr was pressured to pull the photos and chose to respond to that pressure rather than to take a stand for freedom. Flickr knows that Flickr is chock full of photographs in photostreams that are not a members own work and this act on their part simply points to another act where they have selectively applied one of their rules to suit their needs using their overly ambiguous Community Guidelines as justification. Flickr should apologize to Arabawy and restore his photoset.

It is not clear if Google’s decision to remove Raoof’s blog post were due to that very same kind of pressure, or if they were mechanically carrying out a routine procedure relating to copyright infringement.

When it comes to raising public awareness on incidents like the ones that Raoof often writes of, should companies like Google be expected to turn a blind eye?

The real problem here is that the policies are not carried out across the board, and activists fighting against autocratic regimes often get the short end of the stick.

As Raoof told The Next Web, “There is a thin line between really working on protecting content and attribution, and censorship in the name of protection.”

Raoof’s experience also doesn’t speak very highly of Google’s attempt to exercise a little bit of customer service when it comes to its Blogger users, with an entire month passing, and all of his emails and inquiries have been ignored up until now.

We have contacted Google for a comment on the situation and will update the story if and when we receive it.

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