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Google refuses a law enforcement agency demand to remove a video depicting police brutality (2011)

YouTube's refusal to remove a video depicting policy violence raises questions about YouTube's responsibility as an archive of public interest content, and also the limits of its ability to challenge government takedown requests.

Summary: Google began documenting government requests for content removal in 2009. Periodic transparency reports informed users about demands made by government agencies, breaking requests down by country and targeted service (YouTube, Google search, Blogspot, etc.)

In October 2011, the section dealing with US government agency requests included a note indicating Google had refused a questionable demand to take down a YouTube video.

We received a request from a local law enforcement agency to remove YouTube videos of police brutality, which we did not remove. Separately, we received requests from a different local law enforcement agency for removal of videos allegedly defaming law enforcement officials. We did not comply with those requests, which we have categorized in this Report as defamation requests.

News coverage about the unusual request pointed out YouTube's value as an archive of public interest recordings. Later reports issued by Google added the name of the law enforcement agency: the Greensboro Police Department -- one that apparently has a history of officers deploying excessive force.

This isn't the only time Google has rejected an apparent effort to remove content that does not reflect well on the agency making the request. Subsequent reports show Google has rejected government requests targeting recordings of abuse of inmates by corrections officers, articles detailing a police officer's work history, videos containing information about a law enforcement investigation, and five requests to remove videos that "criticized local and state government agencies."

Decisions to be made by Google:

  • Does targeted content contain sufficient public interest to justify rejecting government demands?
  • Does pushing back on requests usually result in government agencies withdrawing or dropping questionable takedown demands?
  • If copyright claims are raised as justification for seemingly inappropriate requests, is fair use raised in defense of leaving the video up?

Questions and policy implications to consider:

  • Does YouTube have a duty to preserve content with sufficient public interest, even if the original uploader/creator tries to remove it?
  • Does Google/YouTube have a duty to the public in general, even though it's a private company? If so, does this conflict with Google's obligations to its shareholders?
  • Does challenging questionable government demands provide more value to users?

Resolution: As noted in Google's transparency report, the targeted video was not taken down. This initial oddity was followed by other questionable requests over the years. Following this showdown with a local law enforcement agency, Google began highlighting requests that "may be of public interest," allowing users to gain more insight into questionable government activities, as well as similarly-notable requests made by private citizens and businesses.

Written by The Copia Institute, September 2020

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