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Google and Censorship

China isn’t the only place where Google faces tough choices.

All eyes have been on Google’s battle with the Chinese government since the company announced on Monday that it would no longer maintain its censored Chinese-language search site. Instead, the company began redirecting users of Google.cn to its Hong Kong-based search service, Google.com.hk, where it maintains unaltered Chinese-language search results.

However, China isn’t the only front in Google’s battle to protect its vision of an open Internet. When Google announced that it might cease operating Google.cn in January, David Drummond, senior vice president of corporate development and the company’s chief legal officer, wrote that “this information goes to the heart of a much bigger global debate about freedom of speech.”

“These issues are coming up all over the world,” says Cynthia Wong, Plesser Fellow and staff attorney at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., that promotes an open Internet.

Wong says governments around the world are making policy decisions about material on the Internet–particularly when it comes to questions of child protection, copyright, and cyber attacks. She says it’s tempting for them to enlist “technology intermediaries”–companies such as Google that host content or help users find information–to police what users can access. Because Google is so dominant in search and involved with many other Internet services, it often winds up at the center of these controversies, she notes.

Technology has shifted censorship from something that governments do to something that often requires participation from companies, says Ross Anderson, chair of the U.K.-based Foundation for Information Policy Research and a professor of security engineering at the University of Cambridge.

Google faces pressure to censor content in many different countries. Inside Thailand it censors YouTube videos that mock the country’s monarch. In Turkey it deletes videos that portray the country’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, as a homosexual. In France and Germany, Google abides by strict hate speech laws and censors content produced by extremist groups. And in India, it censors pornography and anything the government deems politically dangerous.

Google is involved in a number of squabbles over censorship. The company recently criticized the Australian government for a plan to introduce mandatory filtering for Internet service providers. Google says that the proposal goes too far. In addition to blocking child sexual abuse material (which Google already filters out of its search results worldwide), the company believes that the proposed Australian plan would block “socially and politically controversial material,” such as information on safer drug use or euthanasia.

“This type of content may be unpleasant and unpalatable, but we believe that government should not have the right to block information which can inform debate of controversial issues,” wrote Iarla Flynn, head of policy for Google Australia.

Elsewhere, governments are putting pressure on Google to police the content that users upload to its sites. In late February, three Google executives–Drummond, Peter Fleischer, global privacy counsel, and George Reyes, former CFO–were convicted of criminal charges in Italy for failure to comply with the Italian privacy code. The charges were brought in response to a video uploaded to YouTube. Google notes that these executives “did not appear in [the video], film it, upload it, or review it,” and that the video was removed from the site “hours” after the Italian police notified the company.

“In essence, this ruling means that employees of hosting platforms like Google Video are criminally responsible for content that users upload,” wrote Matt Sucherman, Google’s vice president and deputy general counsel for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.

Wong says that Google’s battles in China, Italy, and Australia all ultimately threaten the company’s ability to publish user-generated content, since liability for what users upload and access would mean needing to police it, which would be financially and legally difficult.

But Wong points to a key difference in China. Under U.S. and European laws, there are strong protections for companies that host or index content, she says. Because of this, in Italy, for example, Google can challenge the ruling through the legal system. In China, the situation is very different–every intermediary down the line can be held responsible for content, regardless of where it came from. That legal situation promotes self-censorship, she says.

Google is well-known for explaining its actions by an altruistic-sounding refrain: “What’s good for the Internet is good for Google.” But Evgeny Morozov, a Yahoo! fellow at Georgetown University’s E.A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, notes that the anticensorship position the company has promoted is also directly related to the bottom line.

If Google gets forced, by any country, into the position of having to police and restrict what content users can access, Morozov says, this draws the company into a morass of expense and liability. He believes Google has “a strong commercial interest” in maintaining a role as a simple intermediary, which lets it focus on developing its search and other money-making technologies.

Morozov says this also explains why Google is framing many of these free speech issues in terms of international trade. Especially since the company faces questions of censorship all over the world. “The governments are finally catching up with the Internet and they want to regulate it,” Morozov adds. The question for Google is how well it can protect its stance on Internet freedom, wherever that battle is being fought.

Hear more from Google at EmTech Digital.

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