Issue 228: Google: “Internet censorship getting worse, more sophisticated”

Last month, parallel to the UN Human Rights Council session in Geneva, UN Watch worked with a global coalition of 25 human rights groups to organize a conference focused on the countries that rank as the world’s worst violators. Our Geneva Summit for Human Rightsfeatured leading dissidents, attracted hundreds of activists, and was covered in the Wall Street Journal, Le Monde and La Stampa. Internet freedom for human rights defenders was a key theme. Below is an edited transcript of the most news-making speech. The full conference can be viewed on video here.



Robert Boorstin, Google Director of Corporate and Policy Communications
Geneva Summit for Human Rights Tolerance and Democracy, March 9, 2010

 Click for video (begins at 7:00)

‘It’s too early to tell’

Let me first say thank you to the organizers, in particular to Arielle and her crew who have put this together. They have been extremely efficient—and we are not an easy bunch of people, either the speakers or human rights activists in general, having belonged to both groups now.

The job that I do is called Director of Public Policy for Google out of Washington D.C. I specialize in issues of free expression. It’s a fairly new job at Google and it’s also one of the most interesting jobs at the company, and we can get into why that is. In a past life for my sins, I think I was a speechwriter for someone who tended to go on at great length and so I will try to brief today.

A couple of caveats before I get into the topic of my remarks here. The first is that I’m not a human rights activist. I am honored to be in the company of so many people here who have been threatened for their beliefs, who have suffered for their beliefs, who have been in prison for their beliefs, and worse.

While I did do a few hours in public security bureau offices in rural China, many years ago, the closest I get to human rights violations these days is that I’m accused of them fairly regularly by my children.

I’m an American, that’s something you may have noticed as well, and Americans generally think we know more than everyone else. It’s not really a good thing because, number one, we don’t, and, number two, it tends to make people stop listening to what we’re saying.

So I would ask you to raise your hand if you think I am spouting out propaganda, or I’m doing something else that disturbs you, either as a European, an Asian, an African, or wherever you hail from.

I also work for Google, as you know, and that means that sometimes I can lapse into sounding like a salesman for our products. They are pretty cool, actually. And I work with a bunch of geniuses and it’s kind of fun, so please just give me a little leeway on that one.

On a more prosaic level, I am not a technology expert, I want to be very clear about that, so please do not ask me complicated questions when we get to the questions—I will not be able to answer them.

One other thing I’m not going to do is say a lot about China, and I’m not going to make a lot of predictions about what’s going to happen. The reason for that is fairly simple, and I think the best way to explain it is with a great anecdote about the opening of U.S.-Chinese relations in the early seventies, when Henry Kissinger used to go to Beijing and have talks with Zhou Enlai, who was then the Premier of China.

Over dinner one night they got into a discussion about the impact of various revolutions: the Russian Revolution, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Chinese Revolution. And Kissinger, as was his usual pattern, started going off on a grand historical theory, and after he had spoken for several minutes, he looked at Zhou Enlai and said, “And what is your opinion of the French Revolution?” And Zhou Enlai looked back at him and said, “It is too early to tell.”

This is a lesson that I think we should all have when we’re talking about the Internet. It’s a very important thing, you will hear a lot of people predicting exactly what is going to happen and when it’s going to do so, and I would warn you against listening to such people.

Internet censorship is a global problem

So what am I going to talk about today? I’m going to talk about the promise of Internet freedom, the perils of Internet freedom and what we might do in order to make sure that the promise overcomes the perils. I’m not going to illustrate this with a lot of examples today for a couple of reasons: (1) because they take a long time, and (2) there are people in this room who know these examples first hand, know them a lot better than I do, so I would wait for questions for you to tell me about them and so we can discuss them.

Let’s start, however, with some context because a few things seem as certain as you can get in this area. First, we all know that the Internet is growing phenomenally. I won’t spend a lot of time on this, but just throw out a few numbers for you to consider.

About two-thirds of the world’s population right now has access to mobile phone technology. This is the fastest spread of any technology in human history, and this number, about two-thirds, actually underestimates the number of people who are affected, because one phone can be used by an entire village.

More than 80 percent of Google search queries on mobile come from outside the United States; it’s a very important statistic for us to realize as a company. Here’s another statistic: every minute, 20 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube. Let me repeat that. Every minute, 20 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube. Now, if you watch a lot of YouTube, those who spend a lot of time on it, can rightly question the sanity of the global population at times. Some of the things that you’ll see are, to say the least, rather unusual, but you cannot question people’s commitment to the actual media itself.

Another thing that I would note in context is that Internet censorship is getting worse, and more sophisticated. More than 40 countries to date have censored at one time or another, and Google and YouTube have been cut off, or cut back, in 25 countries.

I would also note, however, that this is not only about repressive regimes, the most miserable regimes, the ones we hear the most about. One thing history teaches us is that we always have to watch our backs—we always have to be looking for what we’re not seeing at that moment. And while focusing on these ugly regimes is popular, it can blind us to other developments.

Now, I’m not someone who will compare the government in Burma or in Vietnam to Western democracies, but I do want to speak about one example that happened very recently where a Western democracy was involved in what could only be called Internet censorship.

A judge in Italy recently sentenced three Google officials to six-month suspended sentences for violating Italian privacy laws. The story goes back to 2006, when an Italian teenager uploaded onto, what was then called, Google Video, a video that was really quite horrendous. It showed teenagers abusing, both physically and verbally, a youth with autism.

Now, it took about two months for the Italian authorities to tell Google that they had found this, and to ask us to take it down, and it took us about two and a half hours to take it down. Nonetheless, the Italian authorities prosecuted our officials, not only on the grounds of privacy violations, but also on grounds of defamation. The grounds of defamation were dropped, [but] our officials were found guilty on the privacy charges.

Now, nobody for a minute would defend the content of that video; it’s precisely the kind of thing that makes people want to be in favor of censorship of different kinds. But I would note the danger that this kind of incident poses—not just to Google officials, but to everyone in this room and people around the world.

Because if, from now on, you’re responsible for anything that appears on your website, you’re criminally responsible for anything that appears on your website, that’s certainly going to have a chilling effect on what people are willing to put up. And another thing it’s going to do is encourage repressive regimes to say, “Wow, look at those Western democracies and what they do.”

The promise of the Internet

Now, let me turn to the Internet’s promise.

First, the Internet is global. It’s a median that pays no attention to borders, and it militates against control. And a particular interest to the people gathered in this room, it means that the diaspora from various countries can have an effect that is way out of proportion to its numbers.

A second area of promise that the Internet has is that it remains an open system, not a closed system. If you’ve got a connection, you are likely to be able to access information and to say what you want. It may take a lot of work in some societies, but you can usually get there.

Third, the Internet is cheap, and it’s important to note that it’s a relatively cheap form of advertising—not only for if you want to sell shoes of course, but also if you want to gather people to a cause. Never before has it been cheaper to come up with a political movement and to bring your followers along.

Fourth, the Internet is a two-way street. In many places, the monopoly on information, once confined to people who owned printing presses or television stations, has been broken, and everyone who wants to participate gets to participate. And the Internet certainly has the potential to be a force for small “d” democracy, for citizen participation and transparency, when it comes to government.

Fifth, and gaining more truth every day, the Internet is user driven. Now, in its highest form, something you know well in this room, this means that you’ve got a new power to bear witness to atrocity or to human rights violations, or expose a corrupt regime. I’m afraid that in its lowest form it’s spam that’s disguised as a personal narrative. No offense to people who run Twitter or who use it, but I don’t want to know what you had for breakfast, or that you left your umbrella at home—I just don’t care about it. And I think that we all have to reduce the amount of things that we put on the Internet if we are to find the things that are truly important.

Let me turn now to the Internet’s peril. First, it’s quite easy to see the Internet as a cure-all, and there is a theme running throughout people who look at these issues, the media in particular, to cite it as a cure-all. But it’s not.

We should remember that the Internet is a medium; it’s a tactic. Internet freedom does not bring about real freedom and what happens online does not magically happen offline. We have to resist what the dissident from Belarus, Evgeny Morozov, has called “techno-utopianism,” and I really apologize to the interpreters for using that phrase.

Second, content on the Internet is a mess, and at one point, my boss, Eric Schmidt, actually called it a “cesspool.” Perhaps that was ungracious of him, to refer to it as such, but I think what’s important here, if you’re considering the Internet’s impact on movements, is that it’s just as easy on the Internet to rally people to a good cause as it is to sell them non-existent bearer bonds. It is just as easy to fool people, and we’ve seen that proven over and over again, particularly in a wonderful University of Copenhagen study in which an expert there rallied a group of 10,000 people to a Facebook group in order to save a fountain in Copenhagen, that was not—repeat, not—slated for destruction.

Third, the Internet has made some of us forget tried-and-true methods of communications. Everybody is so focused on the Internet these days that they have forgotten things like radio. Radio is actually a very powerful media and it would be a shame if in the rush to adopt the Internet, people forget what works.

Fourth, and perhaps deadliest, technology on the Internet can be reversed. The same tools that give power to you also give new powers to governments, and yes, even corporations. That is not to encourage the conspiracy theorists in this room, of course. Think about the tracking of Iranian dissidents through cell phones, people who’ve dialed a single number and been tracked as a result of it. Or credible reports that governments are infiltrating chat rooms by putting their undercover agents online.

The Internet at war

Ivan Sigal, who’s head of Global Voices, which is a terrific group in this area, wrote a paper last year that was called “Digital Media in Conflict-Prone Societies”—perhaps better called “The Internet at War”—and he wrote as follows: “It is possible to build communications architectures that encourage dialogue and nonviolent political solutions. However, it is equally possible for digital media to increase polarization, strengthen biases, and foment violence.”

Finally, when you’re considering the perils, I would note that the technology in the Internet, fascination with the technology, masks what may be the most insidious form of censorship, and that is self-censorship.

Now, I would never urge any of you to put yourself in danger, and that’s particularly true after hearing yesterday’s stories [during the Geneva Summit]. But we always have to question the habits that we’ve formed and those that our various societies have silently, and for a long time, imposed on us.

Finally, what should we do, what can we do together, in order to make ensure that the promise triumphs over the peril?

The first thing that I would argue is: Don’t reinvent the wheel. The coolest stuff that I’ve seen out there is when a dissident or a blogger in one part of the world has his or her work picked up in another part of the world. There’s a lot of these tactics that can be transferred from place to place.

I would also refer you to great organizations that already exist. I mentioned Global Voices, I would also mention the OpenNet Initiative, which is part of Harvard’s Berkman Society. I would mention and There’s a whole group of these, and many others, that are doing a great job.

The second thing that I would say is that we should work together. I won’t talk at length about the Global Network Initiative, but it’s something that our company and Microsoft and Yahoo have come together with human rights groups to put together, and we have in essence written a code of conduct for how information technology companies should operate in repressive regimes. It’s quite complex, it took a long time to do, you can imagine what it was like to putting those people in a room for two years together, but we have succeeded. And as of today we have hired an Executive Director to run the organization and to bring more companies and groups into the fold.

Third thing I would say, in terms of what you should be doing, is to go mobile. Everything is going to be focused on the mobile platform, and as a corollary to that, I would urge you not to overcomplicate what you’re trying to do. In some places it’s simply hard to download images, things like that, so when you’re going mobile, do it simply.

Fourth, I would urge you to translate. The best way to spread the story, of course, is to bring things into new languages, and we aim to do it in 40 different languages now. If you do it, it’s also a way that eventually you’ll help make the technology better because the more people who feed the computer translations, the better off the computer will get at translating idioms. And finally, I would say we should all push the old institutions, and some of the new ones, like Google, too, to make progress.

Just yesterday, to end on an optimistic note, the United States Treasury Department lifted what has been a long-time ban on allowing companies like ours to license certain kinds of software, our Earth software, our Picasa, which is our photograph collection software, and our Internet chat Talk software to countries like Iran and Sudan. Yesterday they lifted that and this is a great accomplishment. We feel it’s something the companies and human rights groups argued for together. We will now be able to offer those services, and we are hopeful that this will help people like yourselves in this room, and activists all over the world, take a small step down what is certainly a long road ahead.

Thank you.


UN Watch