Friday, June 22, 2007

Censorship as trade barrier



The Associated Press is running a story headlined “Google Asks Government to Fight Censorship." The story highlights some (until now) fairly quiet discussions we’ve been having with various parts of the U.S. government, including the Departments of State and Commerce, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, and various House and Senate committees.

We’ve been making the following case:
  • The information industries –- broadly understood to mean Internet companies, book and periodical publishers, broadcasters, and the music and film industries –- together comprise a critical and growing component of the U.S. economy. They create jobs, spur economic growth, and bring to the world the best of American ideals about freedom of expression, creativity, and innovation.
  • To industries that depend upon free flows of information to deliver their services across borders, censorship is a fundamental barrier to trade. For Google, it is fair to say that censorship constitutes the single greatest trade barrier we currently face.

  • Some forms of censorship are entirely justifiable: the worldwide prohibitions on child pornography and copyright infringement, for example. Others, however, are overbroad and unwarranted. When a government blocks the entire YouTube service due to a handful of user-generated videos that violate local sensibilities –- despite our willingness to IP-block illegal videos from that country –- it affects us as a non-tariff trade barrier.

  • Just as the U.S. government has, in decades past, utilized its trade negotiation powers to advance the interests of other U.S. industries, we would like to see the federal government take to heart the interests of the information industries and treat the elimination of unwarranted censorship as a central objective of our bilateral and multilateral trade agendas in the years to come.
It’s important to stress that this isn’t a political thing –- we’re not interested in forcing the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment on other countries. Rather, we’re seeking to ensure that our information-based industry can thrive and flourish in all corners of the world. We take seriously Google’s mission "to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful." To accomplish that for individuals everywhere, we need the assistance of the U.S. and other like-minded governments in combating unwarranted censorship. (We’ve started to make the same case, by the way, to other governments, such as the member states of the European Union.)

The good news is that the uniform reaction to this argument in Washington has been the nodding of heads, typically coupled with a request to hear more about how this can practically be done. Clearly, it isn’t going to happen overnight. But my hope is that the U.S. government can begin to move – incrementally, agreement-by-agreement, over the coming decade and beyond – to include in our bilateral and, eventually, multilateral trade agreements the notion that trade in information services should presumptively be free, absent some good reason to the contrary.

We’ll have more to say about this as we refine our thinking and apply it to specific issues and situations. Feedback & ideas are, as always, welcome.

16 comments:

Philipp Lenssen said...

Additional to reaching out to the US gov't, are you doing everything you can to censor the least possible in foreign countries?

Let's take Germany as an example. Here, you are (or were) part of the "Association for the Voluntary Self-Monitoring of Multimedia Service Providers." As its name declares, this is a voluntary organization, so you weren't forced to join it. And the blacklist data which you apparently use for censoring websites on Google.de is originating from the "Federal Department for Media Harmful to Young Persons." As its name declares, this department is for protecting young persons only, so it would be a case for SafeSearch, not general self-censorship on Google.de. Or do you mostly use court requests, those we can see at ChillingEffects.org, to censor for Germany? I can't tell, not being a Google employee.

To actually have people outside Google discuss this subject (and potentially, help you if you want to censor less, by fighting the local laws they see unfit, and telling you of local laws that you can use in your favor), for starters, we would need you to disclose the ways you implement censorship in various countries; you would need to tell us which organizations censorship requests go through, what verification mechanisms you have in place (e.g. you wouldn't simply flag a site as spam when a webmaster uses Google's spam report form, right), and a broad overview of the technical implementation.

Right now, not only do you not have public disclosures on these issues in the form of help files, you also ignore many of the questions on the subject asked by press or bloggers (unless you pride yourself in having highly innovative & creative Google-specific censorship technology, it's not a trade secret either).

If this "isn’t a political thing," then don't be too political about who you talk to about these issues -- those who use Google should have as many rights to know about your self-censorship as those who try to pressure you into it.

Ashwin Dixit said...

It would be really nice if Google weren't censoring its publishers, while at the same time complaining about "Censorship as trade barrier".


Read more!

Kaoru said...

I applaud google’s efforts to combat censorship on the internet. Reading the blog, what struck me was the line that reads: Some forms of censorship are entirely justifiable. Although I wholeheartedly agree with the statement, I was wondering how this would work in practice.

How will google decide what is just and unjust forms of censorship? Since the issue is censorship as a trade barrier, will this be based on google’s
adwords content policy?. Or will you take into account local customs and laws? Which brings me to my next point.

Obviously the internet, its ability to transcend national borders and the politics that govern it are still relatively new. There are no global standards, or even a unified body, that regulate the internet. (e.g. Article 29 Data Protection Party’s data retention policy, it seems, are not binding and EU members can adopt even more stringent standards!) Compounding this is the fact that different communities have different standards of acceptable speech. Just take a look at the Supreme Court’s adjudication on obscenity . The test for proscribed speech takes into account local standards and customs, meaning that even in America, there are countless definitions of obscenity. With these ideas in mind: How will google go about defining proscribed speech while taking into account local sensibilities and without undermining google’s values or role as a public company? Obviously a global, yet fair, standard would be best.

Ashwin Dixit said...

Similar efforts have been undertaken already, but I have a proposal nevertheless.

Google should:

1. Design a relatively tamper-proof poll.

2. Poll surfers by showing them examples, and asking -- "How objectionable do you find this content?"

3. Form an everchanging global map of objectionable content, starting from a zero-knowledge position and gathering data empirically and systematically.

4. Incorporate the poll results into SafeSearch, and allow users to override their SafeSearch settings.

5. Allow AdSense publishers to advertise their content anywhere they see fit.

Neal said...

This is absolutely rich...considering that Google has openly, willfully and acceptingly helped countries like China censor their dissidents.

Kim said...

Interesting idea, big problems. Have posted my thoughts, as a commentator in a country subject to one of those US bilateral FTAs, in more detail here.

baynado's Suchmaschinen Blog said...

For your mission, work together with the Pirates Party.
They´ve got the same goal. I think.
In Germany we´ve got the Pirate Party Germany (www.piratenpartei.de.
They fight against censorship, too.

Michael said...

"When a government blocks the entire YouTube service due to a handful of user-generated videos that violate local sensibilities –- despite our willingness to IP-block illegal videos from that country"

so it's okay when you block sites that the government wants you to block, but not okay when the government blocks you? Sorry, Google, I'm going to chalk this move up to pure political defensiveness. It's not about spreading information everywhere to you, it's about spreading Google everywhere. The days of Don't Be Evil are long past...

matt said...

I would actually applaud this news were it not for the disingenous attitude applied towards its resolution.

Don't get me wrong, I love Google and understand its interest in keeping a soft, clean simple public image, but I would much rather they stepped up to the plate when it come to wholeheartedly supporting free speech.

sophie said...

"To industries that depend upon free flows of information to deliver their services across borders, censorship is a fundamental barrier to trade. For Google, it is fair to say that censorship constitutes the single greatest trade barrier we currently face" Says Google.

Censorship is a fundamental barrier to human rights. For China, it is fair to say that censorship constitutes oppression and that Google is active in repressing Chinese internet users. Says Sophie.

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