A representative of Google and of the United Nations International Telecommunication Union today spoke of internet freedom in repressive regimes and censorship in Western democracies.
The same tools that allow democratic participation and the opportunity to bear witness to atrocity can be used for spam or surveillance, such as the tracking of Iranian dissidents through cell phones, said Robert Boorstin, director of public policy at Google.
Boorstin and Alexander Ntoko, head of corporate strategy at the ITU, spoke today at the 8-9 March Geneva Summit for Human Rights, Tolerance and Democracy.
The Geneva Summit today announced a “Declaration on Internet Freedom” whichcan be read here.
Censorship in Western Democracies
Those worried about human rights should be careful about focussing too much on the censorship of “ugly regimes” said Boorstin, as in doing so they can be blinded to other worrying developments. The Open Net Initiative, he added, demonstrates the range of different forms of censorship taking place online.
One such development was the recent sentencing of three Italian Google officials for violating privacy laws, he said. The charge followed the posting to Google video of a clip of an autistic teenager being abused by several other teens. Google was alerted to the video two months after it had been posted and then took “about two and a half hours to take it down,” Boorstin said.
“No one would defend the content of that video,” he said, “but if you are criminally responsible for anything that appears on your website, that is going to have a chilling effect on what people are allowed to put up. And it’s going to encourage repressive regimes” that might want to criminalise or censor certain behaviour online. There are also practical considerations, as “every minute 20 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube.”
One promising development is that the United States Treasury on Monday lifted a long-time ban on companies licensing certain kinds of software to countries such as Iran and Sudan, he said.
“This is a great accomplishment, this is something that human rights groups and companies argued for together,” said Boorstin, saying it was a “small step down a long road ahead.”
Internet Freedom where Speech is Not Free
“While there are no borders in cyberspace, global culture does not exist yet,” said Ntoko. “Global companies need to take into account that the internet will not from one day to the next” make value, government, and religious differences disappear.
This means companies have to decide how they will act when faced with censorship.
Speaking of the censored Google.cn that the company runs in China, Boorstin said: “if and when we pull out of China, I feel we will be taking away from the Chinese people a tool they have come to value because it is not Baidu [the Chinese government-run search engine] and because we do not censor as much as Baidu does,” said Boorstin.
But, he said, in China the company does not offer services such as Gmail or Blogger that would have required them to store data in servers on Chinese soil, as this would have left them vulnerable to demands that they share personal information of users.
In Thailand, YouTube was blocked for a time following the posting of a video about the Thai king that violated the nation’s lèste majesté laws. Eventually, Google agreed to take down the offending videos so that the site would be unblocked, seeing it better to take that action than to have nothing there, said Boorstin.
A recently launched Global Network Initiative, a collaboration between Google and Microsoft and Yahoo, is trying to draw up a “code of conduct on how internet tech companies should operate in repressive regimes,” Boorstin said.
Everything Is Mobile
Internet freedom cannot be discussed without recognising the importance of mobile phone technology, especially in developing countries.
Mobile phones have been the fastest spread of a technology in human history, said Boorstin. About two-thirds of the world’s population has access to mobile phones (and this probably underestimates real access as one phone can be used by an entire village) and 80 percent of mobile phone queries on Google come from outside the United States, said Boorstin.
Ntoko encouraged African policy makers in particular to work on creating an enabling environment for business, saying “speaking as an African… we can no longer continue to expect Africa to develop by waiting for handouts… Africa has to put in place the necessary environment to attract business. When that happens, there will be development.” Google currently has bases in South Africa and Kenya, said Boorstin, and said that the company has scouts evaluating other countries for potential projects.
When Is Censorship Appropriate?
Telecommunications networks are bombarded with complaints over what is in the networks, said Ntoko.
Reasons for wanting to censor content online include: technical reasons; the content is illegal within a particular country (and online censorship is an extension of offline censorship); social, cultural or religious reasons (promoting or protecting existing values); the prohibition of politically sensitive material, such as that which critiques the government; and national security reasons. National security, said Ntoko, is recently the most oft-cited reason for censorship, said Ntoko.
It is difficult to prosecute a crime when the criminal, the victim, and the weapon are in three different locations, said Ntoko. UN agencies are working on common laws across countries.
What happened to Google in Italy will most likely not happen elsewhere, said Ntoko. But a better understanding is needed of the liabilities for online content across different countries.
Ntoko said in terms of treatment of content on the internet, the ITU has been working with its members to come up with a common understanding among their national differences. “We need to see if there is any common element,” he said, so that a global company can know what to expect in different countries.
The ITU started with child pornography, and protecting children online, as a focal point as every country can understand it, and it has a unifying element as likely all countries will agree on its negativity.
But “anybody who attempts to find a universal declaration, vision of what should not be allowed on the internet is doomed to failure outside of a very small number of topics,” such as child pornography and hate speech, said Boorstin. Though he also said that he thought instructions for committing suicide or building bombs should not be online though he was not sure how they could be removed.
William New contributed to this story.
Kaitlin Mara may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.