Keeping The Net Free - Freedom of expression must be upheld worldwide

20.01.2013 - 20:53

BELGIUM- BRUSSELS - More than two billion people are active online today, and any one of them can publish their ideas that can be discovered and consumed. More information generally translates into more choice, and ultimately more power for the individual, as events over the past few years in the Middle East make clear. Unfortunately, the year ahead promises to be one where many governments and institutions, uncomfortable losing control,  will step up their crackdown on web freedoms. 

At Google, we already see free expression stifled almost every day.  Our products --from from search and Blogger to YouTube and Google Docs -- have been blocked in more than 25 of the approximately 150 countries where we offer our services. At least 17 countries have blocked YouTube at one time or another and it remains off limits today in China, Iran and Pakistan. And, of course, there is our infamous experience in 2009 in China -- where a steady and measurable increase in censorship in every medium, including the Internet, ultimately led to our decision to stop providing a local search engine.  These forces recently collided at the United Nations. The International Telecommunications Union, a UN agency that counts 193 countries as its members, conducted  a review of the international agreements governing telecommunications and aims to expand its regulatory authority to the Internet in Dubai. Dozens of countries, including Russia and China, pushed hard to exert UN control over the net. As Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said last June, his goal and that of his allies is to establish  international control over the Internet. In the end, 89 countries signed a new international treaty, but the United States, Europe and a total of 55 countries stood firm in favor of freedom. The bad guys do not always come from expected places. The real battle for net freedom will be won or lost in the swing states, often fast-growing democracies such as India, South Africa and Brazil. Google‘s country director recently faces criminal charges in Sao Paolo over the posting of a YouTube video which we believe demonstrated legitimate political speech. A new law limiting liability for internet platforms is being debated in Brazilia.
Even in progressive countries, the risks to free expression are very much alive. Many politicians are facing lobbyists seeking to have filters for pornography set as a default  even though such filters would also block access to much fine art, The Sun newspaper and pretty much any health education site. It’s vital that politicians acknowledge the risks that such well meaning intentions can create. Free expression is, of course, never an absolute right. We prohibit child pornography across all of our products.  Decisions to allow, restrict or remove content from our services and products often require difficult judgment calls. Here’s a concrete example:  Should we have removed the YouTube video of Saddam Hussein’s execution?  Well, no. It’ includes graphic violence, but it’s also an important documentary moment.  Now, should we remove the video of his body after the execution? He’s disfigured, it’s a gory image that has no apparent purpose other than the intent to shock. We decided to take that video down.  Despite the difficulties, we believe that our first responsibility is to maximize their access to information and provide an open platform for free expression.  We try to be as transparent as legally possible with respect to demands from governments. If we remove content in search results, we display a message to users. More generally, we believe that shining a light on the scale and scope of government interventions in the flow of information. In 2010 we started featuring data, listed on a country-by-country basis, of the number of requests we receive from governments to either hand over data about our users, or remove content. The tool we developed to display this is called the Transparency Report - located at www.google.com/transparencyreport.  
We see a strong connection between economic growth and the free flow of information. Information, after all, is the currency of the Internet. When a government blocks Internet service, it is tantamount to a customs official stopping goods at the border. Governments should this trade barrier into account when designing their trade policies.
Four years ago, Google joined negotiations with Microsoft, Yahoo, human rights groups and others in the United States to see if we could arrive at a code of conduct for how technology companies operating in repressive regimes could best operate to promote freedom of expression and protect the privacy of users. The result, called the Global Network Initiative, is by no means a silver bullet, but it represents a concrete step forward. The Network holds companies accountable for their commitments to protect their users and maximises the power of its membership to effect change and prevent backsliding.  Yet so far, no European - indeed, no non-American company has signed up.  
Here’s the bad news: this trend of increasing censorship is likely to continue. Left to their own devices, governments will continue to construct new obstacles to speech, and repression will spread further across the globe. But the good news is that all of us – individuals, groups, companies and governments – can work together to uphold and advance the fundamental human right to free expression. Our real challenge is to summon the will to act.
We think there is much more that could be done. Ireland should put this issue on the its presidency‘s agenda. The European Parliament should pass a resolution defending Internet freedom. Other politicians and European companies should step up. et me make a concluding plea for governments companies and groups around the globe to mobilize. Simply put, we need your help. Any effort to keep the Internet open and free that is limited to the United States is bound to fall far short of its global potential.  Left to their own devices, governments will continue to construct new obstacles to speech, and repression will spread further across the globe. Our challenge in the coming year is to summon the will to oppose this danger.