REGISTRATION INFORMATION CALENDAR UPCOMING PROGRAMS AMERICAN STUDIES PROGRAMS GLOBAL CITIZENSHIP PROGRAM SALZBURG ACADEMY ON MEDIA & GLOBAL CHANGE THE GLOBAL PREVENTION OF GENOCIDE OPTIMIZING INSTITUTIONAL PHILANTHROPY REFORM AND TRANSFORMATION IN THE MIDDLE EAST & NORTH AFRICA SALZBURG CUTLER FELLOWS PROGRAM
Bill Echikson, Google’s Head of Free Expression for Europe, the Middle East and Africa
“The Internet has unleashed a wave of freedom – now we’re seeing the backlash, and we should remain vigilant”
Bill Echikson, Google’s Head of Free Expression for Europe, the Middle East and Africa takes questions from the floor following his presentation on ‘Free Speech – or Free for All?’ alongside SGS Vice President and Chief Program Officer, Clare Shine at the annual June Board Weekend, June 22, 2012
By: Louise Hallman
We live in an age of increasing communication opportunities. In a world of approximately 7 billion people, more than 2 billion of those global citizens are online, accessing over 325 million websites and creating on average 5 exabytes – 5 billion gigabytes – of data per day. But who owns this data? And who, if anyone, gets to decide what can and what cannot be published online?
Such were the pressing questions facing presenters and participants alike at this year’s annual Salzburg Global Seminar Annual Board of Directors' Meeting on the topic of ‘Wising Up or Dumbing Down: Instant Communications and Global Problem-Solving.’
Representing Internet behemoth, Google, and delivering the event’s keynote speech ‘Free Speech – or Free for All?’ was the company’s Head of Free Expression for Europe, Africa and the Middle East, Bill Echikson. Fresh from the launch of Google’s latest ‘Transparency Report’ in Dublin, the Brussels-based American had his work cut out explaining the sheer scale of content Google is faced with everyday to some of the weekend’s participants, who could most kindly be called ‘silver surfers’ – if indeed they surf the Web at all.
No, Echikson explains, it is not possible to screen every video before it is posted on YouTube or read every blog entry prior to its publication on Blogger.
Google is not only the world’s biggest search engine; it is also one of the largest content publishers on the net. On its blogging platform, Blogger, over 250,000 words per minute were written and posted in 2010. Its video site YouTube – purchased in 2006 – sees over one hour of video uploaded per second. Other social media colossuses Facebook and Twitter have over 70,000 photos and 100,000 Tweets posted per minute respectively.
This explosion in content creation has caused massive concern for certain governments. Whilst they might have been able to control and legislate over the content generated, published and broadcasted by traditional media such as newspapers, magazines, TV and radio, using tools from anti-defamation laws through to outright bans, the online and new media spaces are proving harder to rule over.
One way governments have come to control this space is through requesting the removal of content or the access to users’ data.
In 2010, Google decided to lift the lid on this state-led censorship and launched the Google Transparency Report. Every six months, Google releases data showing how many requests for users’ data and content removal it has received from every country involved – and how many of these requests with which they have complied. Apt, given that “Don’t be evil” is the Internet giant’s unofficial slogan.
Sitting in the Max Reinhardt library in Schloss Leopoldskron – built long before anyone had conceived the idea of the information superhighway and when the most ‘instant’ forms of communication still included the telegram, Echikson explains the thinking behind launching this Transparency Report. Was it a case of ‘governments ask us for this information so we want to absolve ourselves of the sin of handing over this information by passing the blame over to governments’? Or was it a more proactive attempt to expose governments who request this information?
“You need to see the larger context to be able to understand the answer. We see internet censorship as a growing threat; 42 countries now censor, filter, block the internet, up from four a decade ago. So there’s definitely an increase there,” explains Echikson.
“And we believe that transparency is one of the ways of calling out and making sure that people understand and see what is happening on the ground. We believe it was a good way of shining a light.”
The huge volume of content created on a daily, if not secondly basis, explains why Google has taken the approach of instant publication with content then only removed later upon request. Google does have its own terms and conditions regarding its content; for example it does not allow the posting of content deemed to be paedophilic or gratuitously violent, and it often relies on its own users to ‘flag’ this content for removal. But it is often not this type of content that Google is requested to remove by government officials.
For example, Google received a request from the Passport Canada office, asking for the removal of a YouTube video of a Canadian citizen urinating on his passport and flushing it down the toilet. Another request came from the Government of Pakistan’s Ministry of Information Technology to remove six YouTube videos that satirized the Pakistan Army and senior politicians. The Polish Agency for Enterprise Development asked Google to remove a search result that criticized the agency as well as eight more sites that linked to it.
In none of these cases did Google comply with the requests.
It did, however, comply with number of German removal requests related to pro-Nazi content or content advocating denial of the Holocaust, both of which are illegal under German law, as well as a request from the UK’s Association of Police Officers to remove five user accounts that allegedly promoted terrorism which resulted in 640 videos being removed. In Thailand, hundreds of YouTube videos have been taken down on request of the Ministry of Information, Communication and Technology for allegedly insulting the monarchy in violation of the Thai lèse-majesté law.
So how does Google decide with which requests to comply and which not?
“First of all, often these requests are legitimate,” states Echikson.
“If a piece of content breaks the law, then we should take it down. But – we should receive a court order, and what we try to do then is limit that court order to the minimum [amount of content] necessary to comply. We will always prefer to err on the side of free speech.
“You’ll see in the report that the percentage of compliance varies from country to country and globally it was about 47%. We do follow the law, we do take down things.
“In Germany, we’ve received a lot of complaints, but they come through court orders (which we think is very important, that it’s not just some who is calling up angry and saying ‘I don’t like it’; it’s a legitimate court order) and most of those [complaints] had to do with [pro-]Nazi content and we took them down.”
This would all be so simple if it weren’t for the fact that some governments pass laws to curb freedom of expression – thus giving legal legitimacy to their requests to throttle free speech. How does Google handle politically motivated, yet technically legally legitimate requests?
“We would want to err on the side of free expression – but we follow the law,” Echikson emphasises.
“If the court comes with a legitimate order saying this breaks the law, we will comply. Or the court comes with a legitimate order saying ‘we need information for an investigation into terrorism or crime’, we will hand over the information on users.
“And if possible, we will try to inform the users.”
One government Google has most famously clashed with is the Chinese – renowned for clamping down on its citizens attempts at free speech. In 2005 and 2006, Google’s competitor Yahoo! was accused of providing the Chinese authorities with information that led to the jailing of two online journalists.
“We haven’t done that, and wouldn’t do it,” insists Echikson, himself a former foreign and business correspondent and bureau chief for news outlets such as the Christian Science Monitor, the Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones Newswires.
On handing over user data, Echikson adds: “It would have to be in a country where we would believe that’s real law and legitimate court orders.”
But it isn’t just the “usual suspects” who are featured in Google’s Transparency Report. In fact, “The usual suspects don’t ask – they just block!” says Echikson.
Still, Echikson calls the number of requests coming from authorities in the likes of Spain and Brazil “alarming”.
So far, neither social media leader Facebook, nor the major search engines of Yahoo! or Microsoft’s Bing have yet to publish similar reports. (In fact, Microsoft featured at the top of Google Transparency Report list for copyright infringement URL takedown requests.) Twitter published their first report just this week (after Echikson’s talk), showing that they comply with almost two thirds of government requests. But Echikson hopes these increases in requests from Western governments will encourage other web companies to follow Google’s lead and shine a light on their attempts to censor the Net.
“We realise our Transparency Report is just from one company – we’re a big company, but it’s just one company’s results – and we would like to see others, even entire governments put out national transparency reports, and that’s something I’ve been working on...
“I was talking to Facebook last week and they expressed interest,” he adds, optimistically.
But it’s not just governments that ask for the removal of search links or web content; private citizens are also pursuing Google through the courts in attempts to take down what they see to be defamatory or privacy-invading content.
In Spain, Google is being sued for content that Echikson believes ultimately the responsibility of the newspaper, El Pais; plastic surgeon, Hugo Guidotti Russo wants the removal of links from the Google search engine that direct to articles in El Pais dating back to 1991 in which the doctor is accused of performing botched operations.
“The right to be forgotten” – the matter under dispute in the El Pais case – “is a catch-all phrase, but for us, it means if you post something about yourself, you have data you’ve put on – you can control that. But you shouldn’t be able to censor what other people have written about you and you shouldn’t be able to go to Google and say ‘I don’t like that when you type my name in, you come up with up with this article criticizing me,’” maintains Echikson, adamantly.
As the adage goes, ‘with great power comes great responsibility’; whilst Google might have the power to publish all manner of content and link to innumerable websites, it doesn’t seek the responsibility to be the gatekeeper of this content.
“We’re taking [the Russo] case to the European Court of Justice. We do believe that the offline rules for defamation should hold online, and the person who writes the material or makes the video or creates the content is responsible for it...
“What we’re scared of is that we’ll be put in a position of having to decide [what the limits of free expression are]. We don’t want to. We don’t think that that’s the proper place for what we do.
“We would say that we are analogous with the telephone company: we don’t decide what people can say on the lines, or the post office: we don’t decide what people can put in the letter.
“That doesn’t absolve us of all responsibility – far from it – but, we do think that this is something for society to figure out, and we would like to work to make sure that limits are as minimal as possible because we prefer the maximum amount of free speech and maximising the potential of the Internet,” explains Echikson, before again adding: “But, you know, if there are laws for illegal content, we will respect them.”
As insistent as he is in saying that neither Google nor national governments should decide where the limits of free speech – and there has to be limits, says Echikson – he also insists that governments must not turn to the United Nations or similar pan-national global bodies to govern the World Wide Web.
“We believe that the present bottom-up, people-power, multi-stakeholder approach to governing the Internet has worked. We’re alarmed by the threat to impose a top-down, government control or United Nations control over the Internet.
“And I think that that is one of the battlegrounds that we are going to see in the coming year or two years. We feel we should remain vigilant because again, what the Internet does it allows each of us to express ourselves...and I think that that’s a new power that we should unleash and cherish and limit the way we throttle it...
“What we don’t want is a rush to the bottom: each of us [companies], individually trying to please governments by handing over more information or bringing down more content. That’s the danger.”
Talk of battles, vigilance, throttling and danger makes Echikson sound like a complete pessimist when it comes to the future of freedom of expression on the Internet. He vigorously denies this is the case.
“No, I’m optimistic,” he says with a smile. “If you look at some of the reactions now to SOPA and PIPA [see Google’s protest video here] ...or ACTA, I think people cherish their free internet. They’re willing to go out on the street and protest for their free Internet!”
Such street protests seem a long way away from the tranquil surroundings of the dusty bookshelves, over-looking the calm waters of the Leopoldskroner Teich.
Standing up to leave for the next session, Echikson concludes:
“The main point is this: the Internet has unleashed a wave of freedom and now we’re seeing the backlash, and we should remain vigilant. As with any tool it can be manipulated and misused but the remedy or medicine to fix it should not be something that throttles and turns off this great freedom.”
A great freedom, indeed.
Related to Salzburg Global Seminar Session:Salzburg Global Seminar Annual Board of Directors' Meeting 2012 - June 2012
posted on: 16 July, 2012
Board of Directors
A Brief History
SGS In The Community
Careers & Internships
Commitment to Sustainablilty
American Studies Programs
The Global Prevention of Genocide
Global Citizenship Program
Optimizing Institutional Philanthropy
Reform and Transformation in the
Middle East & North Africa
Salzburg Academy on Media
and Global Change
Culture & The Arts
Economics & Finance
Genocide Studies & Prevention
Global Media Literacy
Health & Healthcare Innovation
Reform & Transformation
in the Middle East
The Salzburg Global
SALZBURG GLOBAL SEMINAR
© 2013 Salzburg Global Seminar