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Google’s world supreme court of free speech

 

Can the web remain as free as speaker's corner (From Flickrstorm - credits at end)
Can the web remain as free as speaker's corner?

 

For the timebeing, Google acts as a supreme court in a world of “sovereign users” clashing with ever increasing frequency with nation states that would prefer to have the last word on free speech. 

Google acts like a benign dictator of the world’s data, which makes it important that we keep an eye on how it behaves and who is in charge of the decisions about what can and can’t be accessed via the company’s search engine and YouTube services. 

An article in the New York Times (free registration may be needed – can never work out the NYT’s crazy system) takes a close look at the Google legal team and some of the legal struggles they have been involved in around the world. These cases and how The Goog handles itself give us a sense of how it is operating within the various codes of behaviour, mainly informal, that have emerged. 

As the piece’s author, Jeffrey Rosen, a law profesor at George Washington University says: 

Voluntary self-regulation means that, for the foreseeable future, Wong and her colleagues will continue to exercise extraordinary power over global speech online. Which raises a perennial but increasingly urgent question: Can we trust a corporation to be good — even a corporation whose informal motto is “Don’t be evil”?

Governments of various repressive shades are testing Google all the time. While we’re all aware of the restrictions in China, and of the Thai and Turkish governements effectively ransom the company’s access to their citizens (and vice versa) in return for Google blocking access to certain materials, most often YouTube videos. And other attempts to clamp down on content and conversations are surprisingly common: 

Over the past couple of years, Google and its various applications have been blocked, to different degrees, by 24 countries. Blogger is blocked in Pakistan, for example, and Orkut in Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, governments are increasingly pressuring telecom companies likeComcast and Verizon to block controversial speech at the network level. Europe and the U.S. recently agreed to require Internet service providers to identify and block child pornography, and in Europe there are growing demands for network-wide blocking of terrorist-incitement videos. As a result, Wong and her colleagues said they worried that Google’s ability to make case-by-case decisions about what links and videos are accessible through Google’s sites may be slowly circumvented, as countries are requiring the companies that give us access to the Internet to build top-down censorship into the network pipes.

A speaker's corner speaker
Defend his right to speak online (Image: Tom T)

 

Google operates a “decider model” for what plays and doesn’t on YouTube, for instance. Basically decisions get escalated depending on their complexity. A further concern for us all, Rosenberg points out, is that this system isn’t very scalable at a time in the development of the web where video and indeed all forms of content are, well, scaling pretty rapidly…  

I trust Google – for now. But it’s important that we keep watching. Last word to Rosen and Lawrence Lessig: 

“During the heyday of Microsoft, people feared that the owners of the operating systems could leverage their monopolies to protect their own products against competitors,” says the Internet scholar Lawrence Lessig of Stanford Law School. “That dynamic is tiny compared to what people fear about Google. They have enormous control over a platform of all the world’s data, and everything they do is designed to improve their control of the underlying data. If your whole game is to increase market share, it’s hard to do good, and to gather data in ways that don’t raise privacy concerns or that might help repressive governments to block controversial content.”

I note that Rosen is also the author of a book about the US supreme court. For the timebeing, Google acts as a supreme court in a world of “sovereign users” clashing with ever increasing frequency with nation states that would prefer to have the last word on free speech. 

Photo montage credit: Wallulah Junction, Snappy Bex, Wittekind, Quinnum, Tom T, C’est moi!.